Patient Finds Relief From a Lifetime of Pain

" I can’t say enough good things about the care I received. The whole Saint Luke’s team is fabulous.” — Deborah Sandler Kemper

Little by little, pain was limiting Deborah Sandler Kemper’s life. She had lived with back pain since she was in her 20s, trying to manage it with a combination of medication, physical therapy, and epidural shots. 

But as the years went by, those remedies provided only partial, temporary relief. Worse, imaging performed by doctors indicated that her problems were only going to intensify. 

"I was led to believe there was more trouble to come,” she said. 

That trouble arrived in full force in the summer of 2022, when Deborah’s pain, extending from her waist down through her legs, escalated to excruciating levels. On a scale of one to 10? “I said it was a 12,” she said. 

As general director of the Kansas City Lyric Opera, Deborah often spent long days at work. But going to work became unbearable. Exercising and traveling were out, too. She could barely walk. 

"There’s such depression that comes from living with that kind of pain,” she said. “It was to the point that I knew I had to do something.”

Deborah consulted several neurologists, all of whom recommended surgery, but she hesitated. Surgery was a major step, and she didn’t feel entirely comfortable with it. 

Then she met with Gurpreet Gandhoke, MD, a neurosurgeon with a specialty in spine surgery who practices at Saint Luke’s Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute, the region’s leading center for neurological care.

With that meeting, “Everything came together,” Deborah said. “I finally felt like I’d found somebody I could trust. Dr. Gandhoke is a healer.”

Although Deborah was reporting pain in her back and legs, Dr. Gandhoke suspected there might be more going on. 

"There were subtle signs that the problem might not be exclusively limited to the lumbar, or lower part of her spine,” he says. “I felt like there also could be a problem in her cervical spine—her neck.” 

This was confirmed by an MRI that showed Deborah’s spinal cord was compressed at two levels in her neck. 

Neither problem is particularly uncommon, but Dr. Gandhoke said that finding one “hiding” behind the other is more unusual. 

"This is why a thorough neurological exam is important. Even if somebody’s chief complaint is back and neck pain, that doesn’t mean I don’t examine the hands.” 

He concluded that Deborah needed two surgeries, with the one on her neck taking priority. 

"It was a separate problem, but it was a much more critical issue,” he said. To avoid further injury to her spinal cord, “It had to be dealt with first.” 

In cases such as Deborah’s, Dr. Gandhoke says timely intervention is key to bringing relief and preventing long-term damage. Prolonged compression on the spinal cord interferes with the electrical supply to nerves in the limbs, resulting in a progressive loss of strength and dexterity. 

"The earlier you take away the compression, the more likely you will recover the function, and the more quickly you will recover the function,” he said. While some lower back pain is very common in middle-aged and older people, those who experience enough that it interferes with their daily life should seek treatment. 

The thought of two major surgeries can be overwhelming, but Deborah trusted Dr. Gandhoke and was ready to move forward. 

The neck surgery was more critical, but it was also less complicated. Even though the Lyric Opera was in the middle of its season, Deborah was able to schedule the surgery in January, in between performances. She went home the next day and worked from home during her two-week recovery, minimizing her time away. 

Three months later, she returned for her back surgery. The results were immediate. 

"As soon as I woke up, the horrific, agonizing pain was gone. People couldn’t believe it,” she said. 

She was prepared for a longer, more difficult recovery, but was able to go home after a few days. Physical therapy and follow-up care brought more improvement over the next several weeks and months. “I can’t say enough good things about the care I received. The whole Saint Luke’s team is fabulous.”

Now, Deborah can walk without difficulty, and her sleeping has improved. She has more energy, making long days at work far more manageable. Just six weeks after her surgery she was even traveling again, clocking 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day with no ill effects—a threshold she’d never have been able to meet before. 

Dr. Gandhoke credits Deborah’s successes not only to his contributions as a surgeon, but also to her focused and positive attitude throughout the process. 

"She’s a very determined person,” he said. “She was a patient who wanted to get better.”

Deborah agrees that returning to her active lifestyle has been powerful motivation. 

"This has really changed my life,” she said. “Life is short. If we can be without pain, we need to grasp it.”