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  • Patient: Susan
  • Category: Spine

“ I can't believe I'm walking, let alone running.”

“I can’t believe I’m walking, let alone running,” says car crash survivor, seven-time marathon runner and spinal surgery patient Susan Devens, 58. Since her surgery at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in 2014, she has run the New York Marathon, and was ranked fifth in the nation in the 55 and older age group’s 400-meter sprint.

Back pain from residual damage, running and inherited spinal stenosis worsened a few years ago and finally slowed Susan down.

She recalls, “Being a runner and athlete my whole life has made me stronger and given me a high tolerance for pain. But I reached a point when I couldn’t compensate for it. I dealt with it for about three years, and had to drop out of a marathon because one of my legs was completely numb, before I finally sought help.”

Susan turned to a spine specialist at Hoag Orthopedic Institute to repair her back and return her to the sports she loves.

After her accident, Susan knew she would never again take her life or limbs for granted. “I was so thankful for God’s mercy on me that I wanted with every breath to prove I was worthy,” says Susan. “I like to say, adversity doesn’t create character; it reveals it. The accident was a blessing in disguise because it gave me a new perspective.”

Nearly 30 years ago, the Jaws of Life extracted Susan from the passenger seat of a car that crashed in Fountain Valley. She wasn’t expected to survive. Among Susan’s injuries were crushed hips, lungs, liver and clavicle. She was unconscious and bleeding from her ear. Over the next 10 weeks she went from a trauma center to its ICU and then to a rehabilitation hospital.

“The day I accepted that living in a wheelchair for the rest of my life was God’s will for me was also the day the pins came out of my hips,” says Susan. “No nerve damage was found. Using the rehab centers parallel bars, I took my first, miraculous step, all over again.”

More than 50 years ago at age 7, Susan discovered a lifelong love for running when her dad would to tell her go run off some energy. The Rialto Road Runners gave a girl challenged by dyslexia and attention deficit disorder her self-esteem.

In 2001 she was chosen to carry the 2001 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Torch after a friend, so inspired by her miraculous recovery, nominated Susan for the honor. “Sometimes when I run I cry because I so grateful for every step I take,” she says.

In 2014 upon reviewing Susan’s MRI, Susan’s spine surgeon asked her how she was even able to function, given the pinched nerves and compression of her L4 and L5 vertebrae.

“He told me with full confidence, ‘I can fix this!’”

Susan couldn’t wait to have the procedure the following week. After a five-hour surgery to insert a spacer between her L4 and L5 discs and a lumbar fusion, she awoke to see her husband and caregiver, Scott, smiling at her. Her chronic back pain was gone, and for the first time in 10 years, her feet were warm!

“Fixing a pinched nerve that caused me to always have cold feet was reason enough to have the surgery,” she says with a laugh. “I also gained half an inch in height.”

“I honored all of the rules he gave me for my recovery,” she says. “For three months I didn’t ‘BLT’ – bend, lift or twist. But on the 91st day, I started sprinting again.

“Because of the heavy wear and tear, my doctor recommended that at my age I give up running marathons. I’m content to put on my headphones, turn up the rock ‘n roll and run five miles around my neighborhood every other day. I play tennis every week. We recently took a “walk-about” trip to Australia. I would have never been able to do these things if I hadn’t had my back repaired.”

Her new lease on life has prompted Susan to give back to her community in myriad ways. She collects tennis can tops and gives them to the Ronald McDonald House recycling program. As a Knots of Love member, she crochets beanies for folks who have lost their hair due to a medical condition. She’s taught English to adults from China through her church, and aspires to use her sign language skills to tutor deaf children.

Every six months since surgery, Susan has returned to her Hoag Orthopedic Institute spine specialist for a check up. “I always thank my surgeon for how much he and the amazing HOI team have changed my life,” she says. “They gave me the confidence to have surgery that I needed to heal.”