My Battle with Long COVID
Doug Clemens is used to handling life’s curveballs, but debilitating lower-back pain threatened to bench him.
Doug Clemens is used to performing under pressure. A retired major-league baseball player and former executive of a global company, the active 79-year-old knows how to handle life’s curveballs. So, when months of debilitating lower-back pain threatened to bench him, Doug sought help from Dr. Steven Barrer, neurosurgeon at Abington – Jefferson Health. Within hours of undergoing mini-back surgery Doug was resting at home, pain-free for the first time in nearly half a year.
Prior to consulting with Dr. Barrer, Doug had endured months of intense, unrelenting pain on his left side, which radiated down the buttocks and hamstring; behind the knee, down the calf, and into the foot. He had been diagnosed in 2017 with spinal stenosis, which is common in older adults. “The condition is characterized by narrowing of the spaces within the spine, which creates pressure on the nerves that travel through the spinal canal,” explains Dr. Barrer.
Over the course of six months, the Bucks County resident visited several area physicians and had little success with conventional pain management, including oral medication and multiple injections. “The pain was excruciating,” says Doug. He longed to return to the active lifestyle he had maintained since retiring in 2004 from his second career as the vice president of sales and marketing at General Machine Products, the Trevose (Pa.) – based company he had served for 36 years.
“I thought I had run out of treatment options when a church friend suggested I consult Dr. Barrer,” recalls Doug. “My friend, who is also a physician, thought Dr. Barrer might be able to address another health problem I was experiencing at the same time. I had been spending a lot of sleepless nights with numbness and needle-like pain in my right wrist from carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Advanced nerve care results in fast recovery
Doug met with Dr. Barrer, whose specialty areas include brain surgery and the surgical treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome and spinal stenosis, among others. Dr. Barrer performed a comprehensive evaluation and reviewed the results of several diagnostic tests. He explained that both of Doug’s health issues (wrist and lower back) were nerve-related and recommended minimally invasive surgical procedures. “I was really glad to learn both surgeries could be performed on an outpatient basis and would result in a faster recovery than conventional surgery,” says Doug.
Doug’s lifelong athletic pursuits had put him at greater risk for the wrist and back problems he had developed. In the 1960s, he played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues with three teams: the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies. He retired from professional baseball in 1968, after three seasons with the Phillies—primarily as a pinch hitter. Over the years, Doug endured 13 other surgical procedures to treat various joint, tendon and bone issues.
A lifelong avid golfer, Doug played routinely until nerve pain forced him off the course in 2017. Decades of the physical demands of swinging—whether a bat or a golf club—and sideways bending and twisting had taken its toll on Doug’s body (along with the gradual wear and tear of aging).
Free from pain, he’s back in the game
In January 2018, Doug opted to undergo his wrist and spinal procedures one at a time. To relieve the pressure on Doug’s carpal tunnel nerve, Dr. Barrer operated through a ½-inch incision in the crease of Doug’s wrist, using specially designed instruments. Doug recovered without complications and two weeks later returned to the surgical suite for mini-back surgery.
To relieve the compression on the nerve bundle in Doug’s lower spine, Dr. Barrer operated using a microscope and microsurgical instruments. During the procedure, he removed a tiny portion of the affected vertebra to create more space around the compressed nerve bundle. At that time, Dr. Barrer also repaired a herniated, or ruptured, disc (one of the rubbery shock absorbers located between the bones of the vertebrae), which was putting pressure on surrounding nerves. He removed a portion of the disc—a procedure known as a microdiscectomy.
“Because mini-back surgery uses small incisions and microsurgical technology, in comparison to conventional or open back surgery, it results in a faster recovery,” explains Dr. Barrer. While each patient has a unique recovery experience, Doug said that hours after his procedure, he was free from the nerve pain that had plagued him for months. “With these back procedures, patients face a small risk for the potential of recurrent disc herniation, but thus far, Doug has had great results.”
Doug has spent a year relieved of the pain the kept him from enjoying life. “Dr. Barrer got me back in the game,” says Doug. These days, you’ll find him teeing off with family and friends and enjoying his personal field of dreams—the Bucks County country home he shares with wife Ginny, two cats, two dogs and two horses.