By Sondra Barr
Cheryl Zapata knew something was seriously wrong the weekend of her son’s wedding when her right hand, arm, and thigh simultaneously went numb.
Although she’d been dealing with neck and back issues for years, along with suffering from debilitating headaches, she had previously shrugged it off and never considered the issues were related. But, as she was getting ready to celebrate her son’s momentous day on May 21, 2022, she recognized this time her symptoms required professional attention.
“When we were getting ready for the wedding at our ranch, my husband and I were doing a lot of physical labor and I must have pulled something or did something that led to losing functionality,” explains Cheryl.
As she headed to work the Monday following her son’s nuptials, Cheryl didn’t have far to go to see a specialist about the increasing numbness overtaking her limbs. As the Chief Development Officer for Texas Back Institute for the past 14 years and a vendor for the practice for 17 years prior, she immediately consulted with Dr. Rajesh Arakal, an orthopedic spine surgeon at TBI, to assess the situation.
After explaining to Dr. Arakal what was going on, he performed a myriad of tests, and immediately sent Cheryl for an MRI. After reviewing the results, Dr. Arakal recommended surgery.
“I told him, ‘I’m kind of busy, can we schedule the surgery for the end of July?’” explains Cheryl, who had a slate of meetings and appointments over the next few weeks that she felt couldn’t be delayed due to surgery.
Later that day, it just so happened that she was in a work meeting with Dr. Arakal. After closely watching her laboriously move, he quietly approached her with a serious expression on his face and said, “We’re scheduling you for neck surgery this Thursday.” Watching the obvious difficulty and discomfort Cheryl was experiencing prompted his concern.
“I’ve had some neck pain and back pain that was manageable for years, although my right arm and hand had been getting weaker and weaker over time,” says Cheryl, who was also becoming increasingly prone to dropping things. She had attributed her weak hand strength to carpal tunnel surgery that she’d had years before and figured the orthopedic hand surgeon hadn’t been able to fix the issue to maximum capacity.
She shared this additional information with Dr. Arakal, along with explaining to him how she’d been getting Botox injections every eight weeks for six years to help relieve her debilitating headaches. She also divulged her problems balancing and detailed how she was prone to falls. Hearing these extra details further cemented Dr. Arakal’s diagnosis for immediate neck fusion surgery.
“I had been dealing with these issues for a very long time, but I didn’t know everything was tied together,” says Cheryl. “Once you start having nerve damage, surgery is necessary because the longer you let nerve damage fester, the less chance of it healing.”
Cheryl had no qualms as she was wheeled in for her neck fusion surgery on June 9. “I’ve always had a lot of confidence in the TBI doctors, and I have known there is a great benefit to coming to Texas Back Institute for many reasons. These doctors stay on at the forefront of spine treatment through education and research by attending weekly Neuroscience meetings. There is a peer review process in place and they present their interesting cases to one another bi-weekly to learn from one another. TBI also has a research facility at the Plano location which enrolls patients in FDA studies. It is a diverse group consisting of pain management, neurosurgeons, and orthopedic spine Surgeons. But, most importantly, the doctors here treat everything from degenerative spine conditions to scoliosis to trauma patients and specialize in specific areas of spine care, which allows paitnets to get the treatment that is right for them,” she says.
Her confidence was well placed. “I remember laying in the hospital bed right after my neck surgery and I said to my husband, ‘I can feel the strength returning to my hand,’” she says. “A couple of days later, I went to get something out of the refrigerator and before I knew it, I had grabbed the item and was pulling it out and was reaching over with my left hand to try and help my right hand to keep from dropping it. Suddenly, I realized, I’m not going to drop it. I can hold things now.”
Her neck fusion required a 24-hour hospital stay and a six-week recovery period, before her back surgery. While the neck fusion alleviated the numbness and lack of strength in her arm, back surgery was required to restore Cheryl’s leg strength so that she could walk freely, without pain and fear of falling unexpectedly.
When it came time for her back, Dr. Arakal re-evaluated Cheryl completely and determined that while he could do a fusion on her back that wasn’t what she needed. “‘What you need’, he said, ‘is a minimally invasive procedure that’s done endoscopically so that it doesn’t disrupt your tissue but more importantly so that it doesn’t disrupt your bone,’” details Cheryl.
Armed with this information, Dr. Arakal referred Cheryl to Dr. Peter Derman a fellow orthopedic spine surgeon at Texas Back Institute who specializes in this specific procedure.
Sending her to Dr. Derman further bolstered Cheryl’s confidence in Texas Back Institute. “They will refer you to the proper doctor for your specific needs and they will ensure the right surgery for you. I’ve always known that, but as I was going through the process, it struck home in a different way,” she says. “Why would you go anywhere else? You would want to go to a place where you know no matter what’s wrong with you, you’ll end up with the surgeon right for you.”
Six weeks after her neck fusion, Cheryl went in for back surgery at 1 p.m. and was home by 5:30 p.m. the same day. “I’m a medical insider, I get it, but when it happens to you, it’s weird. I had just gotten back from recovery, and they said, ‘You’re leaving.’ I thought, ‘I can’t stand up. I just got back from recovery,’” says Cheryl, who was pleasantly surprised to find out she could stand up, without any issues.
Not only is she pain free, but she also has full mobility, and her headaches are a thing of the past. She’s also gained a fresh perspective on her job. Roughly three months post-surgery and Cheryl reflects on her positive experience as a patient of Texas Back Institute.
“Even though I’ve spent years doing promotional videos of these doctors, they were very thorough explaining to me exactly what was going on with my body during this process. They make sure their patients know what’s happening, what they’re going to do, why they’re going to do it, and what the results should be.”
As Cheryl embarks on a pain-free life, she’s excited for a future that includes holding her two grandchildren, 2-year-old Tyler and 1-year-old Aubrey. “Especially in the last year, I was afraid I might drop them. It’s nice that I’m able to pick them up now without having to sit down first and have someone hand them to me.”
Visit www.texasback.com to schedule an appointment.