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Compassion and high tech finally tame pain

Years of chronic, debilitating pain had left Traci Smith feeling like a burden to those she loved. Sometimes the agony left her unable even to get out of bed. And then, she said, “God blessed me with Dr. Robin Nations at KDMC.”

Thanks to pain management specialist Dr. Nations and a high-tech device called a dorsal column stimulator, Smith has regained “my ability to be a wife and a mother and a Christian.” She’s attending church and teaching Sunday School. Before she received the stimulator, she said, “I couldn’t have done that. I couldn’t have left the house.”

Smith, who lives in Crystal Springs, once led a very active life. She worked in emergency medical service for an ambulance company and was a volunteer fire and police dispatcher. Then, in 2001, she suffered a bad fall. The accident tore ligaments in her ankle, broke her leg and damaged her spine. The spinal injury turned out to be the worst. Even after a variety of treatments, including surgery, constant pain destroyed her quality of life.

“It affects your relationship with the people you love,” she said. “You don’t want to expose them to your discomfort. You want them to see you smiling and in a good mood, and that’s something that had just flown out the window. It was just gone.”

A kidney stone, of all things, indirectly brought her to Dr. Nations. Her urologist sent her to KDMC for testing. “The people were so compassionate and friendly,” she said. “It was a very big change from any hospital I’d ever been to.” When the X-ray technician learned about Smith’s chronic pain, he said, “Well, you need to see Dr. Nations.” Smith said the tech actually called Brookhaven Anesthesia and Pain Management, where Dr. Nations practices. “And before I knew it, I had an appointment to see the great Dr. Nations. And I’ve been seeing him ever since.”

Dr. Nations specializes in anesthesiology and pain management and is board-certified in anesthesia. He told her that, unfortunately, she would probably never regain much mobility. Smith appreciated his frankness. “He was honest with me and up-front.” Then he methodically began working to alleviate her pain. Together, doctor and patient tried lots of medications as well as other therapies. “Rather than just give me medicine, he just doggedly kept on and kept on. He’s determined to find the root cause and then the solution to the problem,” Smith said.

Finally, after noninvasive approaches achieved little success, Dr. Nations told her about dorsal column stimulation. It involved implantation of an electrical pulse generator in her hip and electrodes that extend to the spinal area. As soon as she woke up from the surgery, she felt instant relief.

The stimulator mutes but does not eliminate pain. “It’s there,” Smith said. “I can feel it, but it’s not severe like it was before the stimulator was put in.” The stimulation creates a tingly feeling, “like a light electrical charge,” she said. An electronic controller, about the size of a flip phone, can adjust the stimulation to affect whatever area of her body is causing her the most pain at the moment. The surgery took place in April 2005. The original battery lasted more than nine years, finally having to be surgically replaced last November.

Smith looks on the bright side, choosing not to mourn what she’s lost but instead to appreciate what she’s recovered. She definitely appreciates her doctor. “They don’t come any better than Robin Nations,” Smith said. “He’s one of the most compassionate and understanding doctors I’ve ever known in my lifetime.”

As for KDMC, “I will never use another hospital,” she said. “I will use KDMC for everything from the simplest little thing to the most major.”

To learn more about spine care services offered at KDMC, visit kdmc.org/spinecare.

David Culpepper is the marketing director of King’s Daughters Medical Center.