Patient Story: Return to Africa

By Sara Kearns

I’ve always loved to travel, and I built my career around it. In my current job I lead African safaris several times a year. I find Africa to be a magical place.

About two years ago, I started having this awful pain in my back and leg. The pain increased, and standing was unbearable. I tried acupuncture, physical therapy, and pain management, but nothing worked. The pain increased to the point of debilitation — I was in misery. There were two big safaris where I really wasn’t able to move around, and I had to use a wheelchair when I went through the airports. Before my back started bothering me, I used to lead the trips and be very active. But the pain had gotten to the point where I thought perhaps I’d never walk again.   

Finally, my family practitioner had me go for an MRI, and he sent the pictures to Dr. Härtl. When I saw Dr. Härtl, he told me my diagnosis was mostly my age (I turned 70 last August). I had spinal lumbar stenosis and spondylolisthesis, in which the spine leans on the nerves. It really is about age, because it’s just a wear-and-tear injury from decades of living.   

Dr. Härtl recommended spinal fusion surgery to relieve the pressure on the nerves. I really doubted that it would work, but Dr. Härtl said he knew he could fix it and had no qualms about doing the surgery. I was scared — nobody wants to have back surgery — but I wanted to get better and I trusted Dr. Härtl, so I just did it.

I had the surgery in May 2012. Dr. Härtl put in titanium pins; as I was waking up from anesthesia he showed me the pictures of these metal things in my back! But I had been living with pain for two years, and the pain went away before I even got off the operating table. The pressure on the nerve had been constant, and the surgery provided immediate relief. The pain I was used to feeling was gone. It was just amazing.

Sara Kearns in Africa

Dr. Härtl said the best thing was to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. I was up walking soon after the surgery and I was out of the hospital just two days later. I had physical therapy three days a week at first, then one day a week — that part was difficult, because you don’t realize how much muscle tone you lose when you stop moving. But there was no pain.

I saw Dr. Härtl two weeks after the surgery, and he told me I was doing fine and to come back in a year!  

In no time at all I was back on the tennis court, riding horses, and most of all I was back in Africa on my safaris.  In November I went to England for my nephew’s wedding and then left for Nairobi to take five clients on a 10-day safari in Kenya, which was just magical. And no wheelchair in the airport.

Sara Kearns in Africa

No sooner had I arrived in Africa than I was tossed off a camel, right onto my back. My first thought was that I was going to die, my second was that my back would come undone!  Dr. Härtl was horrified when he heard the news, but aside from some awful bruising my back was fine. I credit that to Dr. Härtl's good work. I guess I should slow down, but this year am planning a ski trip along with riding, tennis, and  more worldwide travel.

A lot of people had kind of pushed me around before I saw Dr. Härtl, telling me a lot of different things to do, but Dr. Härtl diagnosed me properly and had the right solution. I was practically a cripple until I had the surgery, and I hated feeling that way. I hated thinking it was permanent.

I’m so grateful to have found Dr. Härtl. I think he is the very best, and I would recommend him to anyone.  He’s not a typical doctor — he’s brilliant and funny, and he has a great love of Africa, so we have that in common. (Find out more about Dr. Härtl’s Mission in Tanzania). Most of all, he is a person — not just medicine.


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