Back in the Swim of Things: Spine Surgery Leads to a Pain-Free Life

Susan McMenamin can't explain how, when, or why her back pain began, other than that it came on suddenly, and quickly became debilitating.

“I had gotten into a really good routine; I was working out, losing weight, feeling good, and enjoying life,” she remembers. “Then out of nowhere comes this back pain. Some days it was so bad that just walking would bring me to tears. I wasn’t sure what to do at first, but what I knew for sure was that I couldn’t live like that.”

With guidance from her primary care physician, McMenamin turned to John Carbone, MD, director of Orthopaedic Spine Services in the Spine Center at MedStar Harbor Hospital. Imaging revealed she had back problems that included degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, and degenerative scoliosis … conditions that are common as people get older. Surgery was an option, but it was not a decision she took lightly.

“I was scared,” says McMenamin.“But Dr. Carbone and his team were very patient and took the time to educate me and answer all my questions. I kept trying to convince myself that I didn’t need surgery. But at the end of the day, the pain was still there, and I felt so limited in terms of things I could do in my life. I scheduled the surgery.”

McMenamin woke up in the recovery room at MedStar Harbor and immediately knew she had made the right decision. She sat up and felt no pain. A short while later, she took a few steps and felt no pain. Three days later, she was feeling so good that she began taking brief walks around her neighborhood.

“I did not expect to feel that good, that quickly,” McMenamin says. “It was an amazing feeling. I was proud of myself.”

Dr. Carbone sees patients just about every day with medical issues similar to McMenamin’s. Many have been living with pain or limited physical abilities for a long time. Some assume their issues will eventually go away. Others don’t realize that the pain they are experiencing can be resolved, surgically or through other treatments such as medication or physical therapy.

“If you are experiencing weakness in your legs, feet, or arms, having trouble with your balance, or start noticing drastic changes in your handwriting, you should consider seeing a spine specialist,” explains Dr. Carbone. “People can be quick to assume that these changes are just a result of aging, and that they are normal. They are not. Age doesn’t cause your handwriting to change, and it won’t cause you to lose your balance and fall. These are the hallmark indicators of a spine problem, and we can help.”

Fortunately, modern spine techniques have led to very positive success rates for patients like McMenamin, who opt to undergo surgery to reduce or eliminate back pain. In developing treatment plans for each patient he cares for, Dr. Carbone always emphasizes that spine surgery is an elective procedure and personal decision.

“I don’t try to talk anyone into having surgery,” Dr. Carbone notes. “I explain the options and process, and that having the operation will likely make them better than they are today. Once a patient realizes they can be comfortable again, and do the things they want without pain, it does become an easier decision in many cases. But it’s their decision to make.”

Today, McMenamin’s life is back on track and she is feeling better than ever. She has a lot more energy, and most importantly, a very positive outlook on her future. She is swimming, dancing, and exercising regularly at her community gym.

Just four months after her surgery, McMenamin took a once-in-a-lifetime vacation—a transatlantic cruise, sailing from Rome back to the U.S. Her days were packed with exciting adventures and excursions, including a physically demanding hike on Mount Vesuvius, a volcano located on the Gulf of Naples in Italy. She considers it one of her greatest life accomplishments, especially since she reached the top without any discomfort or pain.

“I had the time of my life,” says McMenamin, age 64. “I am so grateful for Dr. Carbone. He gave me my life back.”

For more information, please call



The Spine Center at MedStar Harbor Hospital
MedStar Harbor Centers for Orthopaedics
2900 South Hanover St.
Baltimore, MD 21225