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Emory spine surgeon gets cycling enthusiast back on his bike

By Darren Miller | Development Communications | June 9, 2014

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Jerry Feinstein, a longtime cycling enthusiast suffering from a degenerative spine, traded in his wheelchair for a new bicycle thanks to the care he received from Emory orthopaedist John Heller.

Jerry Feinstein bought himself a special gift for his 75th birthday in early May—a Trek Domane 5.2. Sure, this endurance road bicycle comes equipped with state-of-the-art features. But his purchase packed another kind of power.
 
A longtime cycling enthusiast who trekked from Prague to Vienna, rode through French wine country, and biked the hills of Tuscany, Feinstein had been stripped of his ability to do what he loves more than a decade ago. A degenerative spine relegated him to a wheelchair, and heavy doses of prescription painkillers provided only temporary relief.
 
Feinstein, a resident of Sarasota, Fla., needed a more permanent fix, desperately wanting to get back on his bike.
 
With the help of a group of close confidants, Feinstein set out to find a spine surgeon he could trust, identifying five top centers across the country, formulating a list of 20 questions to ask when meeting with doctors, and determining the answers he needed to hear.
 
The first doctor he visited failed the test.
 
“He told me, ‘I can get you riding a stationary bike again,’” says Feinstein, who wanted better and knew he could find it.
 
He then traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, where his son resided, to meet Dr. John Heller at Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center.
 
“Whose hands will be in my back?” Feinstein asked Heller at the first meeting. “I remember him saying, ‘It’s a four-hand procedure, so me and my fellow. He holds, and I snip.’”
 
That response sealed the deal.
 
“Dr. Heller answered all of my questions exactly right,” Feinstein says. “And I liked him.”
 
Only a couple of weeks after laminectomy surgery to relieve the pressure caused by spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the open spaces in the spine), Feinstein was out of the wheelchair.
 
As expected, pain persisted, and his degenerative spine would require a more involved procedure down the road. After nursing his back along for about 10 years, Feinstein returned to Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center. In May 2013, Heller performed major reconstructive surgery of his cervical spine, followed three months later by lumbar reconstruction and then a grueling month of physical rehabilitation.
 
“The care here is outstanding,” says Feinstein, who added the nurses have nicknamed him Ace because of all the hardware in his back. “I have always felt in good hands—from a physician’s standpoint and a facility standpoint.
 
“John always has a great bedside manner and always had the right answers,” Feinstein says. “I knew about everything he was going to do before he did it.”
 
Appreciative of the care he received from Heller and his team at Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center, Feinstein donated $12,500 after the first procedure in 2003 and another $18,000 after his surgery in 2013.
 
“I’m a firm believer that those in more fortunate circumstances should pay more,” Feinstein says, “but since I can’t do anything about Medicare, I give more this way.
 
“I can’t buy a wing of the hospital,” he says, “but my gifts are my way of saying thanks.”
 
Heller is grateful for Feinstein’s generosity, calling such contributions vital for research and education.
 
“What energizes me most is my passion for and love of teaching and training,” Heller says. “That’s the extra sauce, and the world’s best feedback. I’m paying forward the same gifts given to me by my mentors.”
 
Without philanthropy, he says, that rewarding mission would be all but impossible to fulfill.
 
“Graduate medical education would wither on the vine starting today,” Heller says. “If philanthropy was important a decade ago, it is important squared today.”
 
Feinstein, whose professional relationship with Heller has evolved into a friendship over the years, returned to Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center in May 2014 for a follow-up visit. Less than nine months after his third and final surgery, Feinstein walked through the halls of the center with a quick, healthy gait, greeting nurses and physicians he’s come to know along the way.
 
After some initial banter and talk of fine wine, Heller reviewed recent scans of Feinstein’s spine, pointing out how bone has grown in and around the cages inserted during the surgeries. His right arm’s full range of motion and strength had nearly returned. The list of improvements increases with time. By all accounts, Feinstein is doing very well.
 
“I’m 1-inch taller and 21 degrees straighter,” Feinstein says.
 
“It’s been a long haul and a tough road, but there’s a good end,” he says. “I’ve got the usual stuff that comes with major surgery, but I’m walking again. I’m enjoying my life again.”
 
While Feinstein credits his doctor, Heller praises his patient.
 
“If every patient was as dedicated and willing as Jerry,” he says, “our lives and their success stories would be way more predictable.”
 
Feinstein, who once feared he’d never cycle again, is already riding 15 to 30 miles each morning and plans to increase that distance soon.
 
“It’s absolutely unbelievable to ride a road bike again,” he says.
 
Feinstein is looking forward to traversing the mountain landscape of Aspen, Colo., this summer on his new birthday gift, and his doctor is delighted for his patient.
 
“The ability we have to change people’s lives is absolutely unique to health care and surgery,” Heller says, his passion evidenced by the emotional breaks in his voice. “The magical connections with patients and their families are really special and a treasure of what we do.”
 
Heller often summons the counsel one of his mentors offered him years ago to pass to those he now trains.
 
“There will be setbacks and disappointments,” he says, “but the victories are worth it.”
 
To learn how you can support Dr. John Heller and the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center, contact Susan House in the School of Medicine development office, 404.778.4258 or 
shouse2@emory.edu.