Dr. Elena Yureneva planned to marry her fiancé in his hometown in Ireland. But when her severe sciatic nerve pain came to a head one day, her wedding plans were the least of her worries.

The 41-year-old physician and research scientist had dealt with severe back pain for most of her adult life. A cliff diving accident in her youth resulted in a herniated disc that continuously compressed a nerve in her lower back, shooting pain through her left leg intermittently. For 20 years, Elena had managed the pain using physical therapy, yoga, medication, and acupuncture.

But one morning Elena woke up with pain and numbness so severe that she realized she needed medical attention right away. A recent New England transplant, Elena did not know many local physicians and was unsure where to go at first. Based on reputation, Elena decided to go out of her way to the Massachusetts General Hospital emergency room.

Compassionate Care at the ER

Elena, an Orthopaedic Spine Center patient, who was dancing at her wedding two weeks after spine surgery with Dr. Harold Fogel
Elena and her husband exchanging vows at their wedding

As a physician herself, Elena had worked in emergency rooms for several years. She was pleasantly surprised by the level of care she received during her overnight stay at Mass General.

"I know how busy the ED gets," she says. "And yet, the nurses were attentive, and wait times were short. People were compassionate."

She met with orthopedic spine surgeon, Harold Fogel, MD and explained how her sciatic nerve pain interfered with her life. She also casually mentioned that she was planning a wedding that was only a few weeks away. The couple had already moved the wedding from Ireland to Boston, because Elena could barely move, let alone travel. Now, they were considering canceling the wedding altogether.

Elena told Dr. Fogel that she could barely stand or walk without a crutch and severe pain, let alone walk down the aisle, mingle with wedding guests and dance. Basic household tasks had become nearly impossible, and it took her 10 minutes just to put on her socks each day. Elena continued to work through the pain, because she was eager to meet a major milestone at her job, but she spent much of her time at the office lying down on the cold laboratory floor for relief.

"With my sciatic nerve pain, I started losing the function of my left leg," she says. "It was the most painful thing I've ever experienced in my life. It was absolutely incapacitating."

Her Solution: Microdiscectomy Spinal Surgery

After discussing Elena's decline in function, mobility and quality of life, along with assessing her MRI results and medical history, Dr. Fogel recommended spinal surgery to avoid permanent damage. Much to Elena’s surprise, Dr. Fogel told her not to cancel or even postpone the wedding.

"To give Elena the best chance of recovery in time for her wedding, I offered to schedule her surgery immediately, canceling my upcoming clinic so that I could operate ASAP," Fogel says.

As if that was not enough, Dr. Fogel told Elena she would be dancing at her wedding. Sitting in the doctor's office with a crutch, bent halfway over a chair to mitigate the pain, Elena laughed, thinking he was exaggerating.

Just four days after her initial visit to the Mass General emergency room, Elena traveled to Newton-Wellesley Hospital for a lumbar surgery called microdiscectomy. Normally an outpatient procedure, microdiscectomy is quick and only requires a small incision on the patient’s back. Following her microdiscectomy, Elena stayed overnight for observation, due to a known history of reactions to anesthesia. The next day, she was home to recover and cautiously prepare for her wedding.

"[Dr. Fogel] pulled it off. He put me at the top of his schedule, sacrificed his time and everything else to help me out, which is absolutely incredible."

Dr. Elena Yureneva
orthopedic spine patient

Dancing Through Recovery

Within two days, most of Elena’s nerve pain was gone. She found she could finally sleep for more than an hour at a time.

"All of a sudden, there was no agony," she says.

Then, a mere twelve days after her back surgery, Elena stood upright without a crutch, walked down the aisle and exchanged her wedding vows.

Filled with joy, Elena danced all night with friends and family who had traveled internationally to attend, enjoying the Russian and Irish music that reflected the new couple's rich cultural heritages. Elena was able to embrace her new husband tenderly as they danced together to their favorite song, Frank Sinatra's "Moon River." Thanks to Dr. Fogel, the bride danced without pain for the first time in years, thoroughly enjoying a wedding celebration that had almost been canceled.

"It was absolutely beautiful," she says. "I danced like there's no tomorrow."

Now, a year after the surgery, Elena is still working and practicing yoga, but without any nerve pain. Colleagues no longer walk past her lab space and see her sprawled out on the floor in agony. She is now able to take turns with her husband walking their bulldog, Matilda, and is only limited by one minor inconvenience.

"Stilettos are out of the question at the moment," she says.

In the first few months after the surgery, Elena did have a few flare-ups of her old injury, but nothing as severe or restricting as before the surgery. When she has concerns, she emails Dr. Fogel for advice, and is impressed with how quickly he responds with solutions. The access to care at Mass General has surpassed all of her expectations, and she has now been pain-free for eight months straight.

"It was so easy to recover from the microdiscectomy, and I only have a small scar. If you're in pain like I was, don't wait. Go see Dr. Fogel at Mass General."

Dr. Elena Yureneva
orthopedic spine patient