Patient experience: back pain


How Keith’s wedding day was saved by some stunningly succinct back surgery

Interviews: Clare Finney

Exactly three weeks before the day I was due to get married, I ruptured a disc in my back, lifting sheep feed. I had to move about 40 bags of the stuff, each weighing 25kg, and I got a bit lazy and complacent when I reached the last one. Instead of bending my knees as you’re supposed to, and as I have done for years, I bent down and lifted it up with my arms. I managed to get it about four inches off the floor before I felt something give in my lower back. The pain went away five minutes later, and I carried on through the rest of the day as normal, thinking I’d dodged a bullet. Then, later that evening, after coming out of the shower, I crumpled onto the bathroom floor like I’d been shot in the hip and groin.

Fortunately, thanks in part to the previous back surgeries I’ve had, I have a high pain threshold, so I managed to crawl to the bedroom and call an ambulance. They said they’d be four hours—we live in the middle of nowhere —so I drove the 18 miles to our local casualty centre, where I was x-rayed and told I’d pulled a muscle. I couldn’t believe the pain of a pulled muscle could be that bad. I thought I’d go mad with it—and when it didn’t subside over the next few days, I called Mr John Sutcliffe, the surgeon at The London Clinic who had operated on my back previously. He said, “If you can get to me, I will look at it.” I fell onto a train, into a taxi, out at Harley Street and into the hospital, where I was scanned immediately. An hour and a half later, I was in John’s office and he was pointing at disc L3 in my back saying, “Look at this massive rupture.”

The tiniest incision
John sent me home, promising to sort it ASAP—and within 24 hours he was on the phone, telling me about this surgeon called Michael Hess, who is based in Germany and who, fortunately, was free the coming Saturday to fly over to London. Michael was the only surgeon, John said, who could operate on me endoscopically. This was now two weeks before the wedding, and we were terrified: we’d planned everything, and had guests coming from as far as Los Angeles who had booked flights months previously. By the time Saturday rolled round I crawled into the clinic—I could hardly walk by this stage—but as usual everyone there was absolutely lovely. The operation they run at The London Clinic is just incredible. They hold your hand through everything.

After a short wait, the door opened and Michael Hess walked in. He introduced himself to me and my partner, asked me what exactly had happened and carried out an examination. He then began to explain the surgery in great detail, which was brilliant as I am one of those people who absolutely needs to know what’s going on and why. Still, when he told me he was confident that when I woke up the next morning I would be almost back to normal, I just thought, bless your heart. I honestly couldn’t believe that anything would take away that much pain, that quickly. The last back surgery I’d undergone had required me to go through a lengthy period of recovery and rehabilitation. It was unbelievable to me that someone could make the tiniest incision, do all the necessary work and take away all that pain.

Awe and wonder
Despite my doubts, by the time Michael came to see me the next morning, the pain was reduced by about 90% and I was up and walking. There was a bit of residual pain, as John and Michael had told me to expect—the nerves had been crushed, then released, and they don’t like that—but it was nothing in comparison to what it had been. For 10 days I hadn’t slept more than 20 minutes at a stretch. Suddenly I was sleeping for a full seven hours. I am still in complete awe and wonder at what they’ve done. John could have given me heavy drugs or an injection to enable me to struggle through the wedding, then carried out a conventional operation later—but he knew how important this was to us, and he knew what was possible. He knew there was someone who could perform an incredible procedure and enable me to walk out like I hadn’t had any surgery at all.

Such was Michael’s level of care, before he went back to Germany he wrote down his landline, mobile and email, and told me I could contact him at any time, day or night. He and John were anxious to stress that while I was feeling good and only a tiny incision had been made, I mustn’t forget I’d had major surgery, so for a while I was so terrified of doing any further damage I was in complete lockdown. I didn’t lift a thing or run anywhere. After about a week, I felt comfortable unloading the dishwasher. Throughout all this The London Clinic was just amazing: I got calls from nurses asking how I was and if I was happy with everything, which from a patient’s point of view was just so comforting and encouraging.

I am so grateful to John Sutcliffe: for finding Michael and for driving this brilliant standard of care. I am just eternally grateful. I hope to goodness you don’t ever have to experience back problems, but if you do, I could not recommend The London Clinic more.