Gary Dennis used to enjoy taking frequent lunchtime walks from his office to the Exposition Park Rose Garden and USC campus, about a two-mile round trip. However in 2016, that scenic stroll — and his daily commute from Eagle Rock — became impossible when the back pain that had plagued him sporadically since 2002 intensified.

The diagnosis

Driving 12 traffic-plagued miles into work, he often had to pull over, get out of the car and wait for the pain to subside.

He was ready to take things to the next level: surgery. “I’d been hoping that day would come for a long time,” says Dennis, a 36-year USC employee in the information technology department.

Dennis met with Raymond J. Hah, MD, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, who specializes in conditions of the neck and back at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. The diagnosis: spinal stenosis of the lumbar spine. This narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back is caused by the growth of bone, tissue or both, in openings in the spinal bones. These growths can pinch and inflame nerves near the spinal cord.

The surgery

Spinal stenosis is slowly progressive and does not always require surgery. But for many, the solution is a laminectomy, also known as decompression surgery.

This diagnosis came at just the right time. The USC-VHH spine program — an extension of the respected USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC — launched six months earlier with advanced surgical services that most community hospitals do not offer.

“Our goal is to make this one of the best spine centers in the region,” says Hah, who also practices at Keck Hospital of USC.

Hah says a successful spinal procedure “goes beyond the surgeon’s role. It takes a multidisciplinary team.” That includes experienced operating room nurses, surgical technicians, physical and occupational therapists, pain management experts and other specialists in post-operative care.

Dennis was walking the USC-VHH hallways the afternoon of his surgery without aid and went home the next day. Good recovery from back surgery depends in part on such “early mobilization,” Hah says. “Having the patient get up and moving soon after surgery helps with minimizing pain and easing recovery.”

The outcome

Dennis tested his post-surgical progress in a series of careful outings. A trip to the Pantages Theater for a performance was uncomfortable, but he followed that with a USC football game that caused only a few twinges. Finally, he sailed through a Los Angeles Rams game with flying colors.

Now eight months after surgery, Dennis is managing to walk up to a mile and a half at a time. He fully expects those Exposition Park roses to be blooming for him again very soon.

By Candace Pearson