As her friends threw themselves like stones off the cliff and into the water below, Jennifer Molina stood a few feet back from the edge. She didn’t know how to swim; she only wanted to watch. Then, one of the guys grabbed her and pulled her toward the edge. She tried to resist, but it happened fast. Before she knew it, she was over the edge, sliding down 35 feet of rock and plummeting into the water.
Nobody knew the fall had broken Molina’s back and would paralyze her temporarily from the waist down. Nobody knew she would spend the next 21 years in and out of surgery, trying to find a doctor she could trust. When the accident happened in 1989, Molina was a week out of high school.
“I wouldn’t be here today without Dr. Gupta,” the 39-year-old says of Purnendu Gupta, M.D., medical director of the Chicago Spine Center, a program of the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital. Dr. Gupta is also associate professor of surgery in orthopedics and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Gupta operated on Molina to straighten her spine in November. The 13-hour surgery straightened her spine—and added 3 inches to her height.
“I am now 5’5½” and haven’t stood that tall in years,” Molina says.
Molina came to the Spine Center hunched at a 45-degree angle and in chronic pain. She had to crane her head upward when she asked the administrative assistant at the front desk if anyone there could handle her case.
Molina had undergone five surgeries since her accident. Her back was full of rods and pins, but she had regained her ability to walk. Everyday was a struggle full of extreme pain.
X-rays showed broken titanium rods in her back, a shattered sacral bone and multiple internal compression fractures. Dr. Gupta took photos of her scans on his phone and for months brought them to conferences to gather other experts’ opinions.
He also showed the scans to Molina’s husband, Rodney, who witnessed her accident and has been by her side ever since. The couple has a 19-year-old son and an infant granddaughter.
Molina and her husband made the 65-mile drive from their home in Marseilles, Ill., six times before Dr. Gupta operated. “We wanted to look at her neck, look at her back, see if there were other issues causing problems for her,” says Dr. Gupta. Molina also had scoliosis, kyphosis and spinal stenosis.
Eight months after Molina and Dr. Gupta met, the multidisciplinary surgical team finalized their plans to perform a complex spinal correction called an osteotomy. During the procedure, Dr. Gupta removed most of the instrumentation already in Molina’s back. He added screws, rods and bone grafts. When he came out of surgery, he sat down with Rodney to review the situation, sharing images that compared Molina’s spine prior to the surgery with what he had done.
“I just started bawling,” says Rodney. “It was the relief. I’ve been there since the beginning.”
Two days after the surgery, Dr. Gupta and his nurse, Laura Ruszkowski, helped Molina from bed and started her walking. It was an early and successful start, but the process will be slow. For the first three months, Molina wears a brace and must wait six to nine months before she can bend, lift or twist.
“There’s a lot of pain; every step I take hurts, but it’s a good hurt,” Molina says. By her six-week check-up in January, she was able to walk six blocks.
“It took me a long time to trust somebody with a (surgical) blade,” she says. “Without Dr. Gupta, I wouldn’t be here, playing with my granddaughter and seeing my son accomplish what he’s accomplished.”