For Mary Shorba, just being able to stand is remarkable. Earlier this year, she developed a spinal tumor so massive that it literally crushed one of the vertebrae in her lower neck. The prognosis was grim.
"The doctor told me I that I probably wouldn't die, that I'd be a quadriplegic at least 10 years before I died," said Mary. "That kind of motivated me to say yes to the surgery even though I was very scared."
The surgery she said yes to was one of the first of its kind on a spinal tumor so advanced that UCSF surgeons Christopher Ames and Vedat Deviren mapped out a procedure that would last 40 hours, with both men working simultaneously. A single slip by either could be fatal.
"Once the arteries are separated out ,then the most challenging part is figuring out which nerves you can sacrifice without compromising, for example, breathing function," said Dr. Ames.
However, the final challenge is perhaps the most stunning. After surgically separating the tumor from the spinal cord, surgeons emoved it and four vertebra in Mary's neck.
"When you remove four levels of the neck, that means that between C2 and C7 there is no spine," said Dr. Ames.
To support the spinal cord, the surgeons inserted a metal tube with four titanium rods, a technique developed at UCSF.
"So basically, your head is resting on just a metal pipe, a mesh metal pipe with rods on the side," said Dr. Ames.
He said earlier versions literally bent under the weight. But now, months after her surgery, Mary is able to walk. She also has enough strength and nerve function in her arms to carry objects and write a letter.
"Yes, she will have a signficantly rigid back and less range of motion in her neck, but should the rest of her body function be maintained, hopefully will have a long happy life," said Dr. Deviren
Back home now in Willits, Mary says life is sweet. "Oh, I feel really good. I can do just about everything that I could always do. My joy for life has come back."
Doctors say they still have to monitor the neck area carefully to make sure the tumor doesn't reoccur. They believe the rods they inserted to support Mary's neck and head should last a lifetime.