Henry Wang
Henry Wang, middle, knew he wanted Dr. Fehlings – an expert in spinal cord injuries – to perform the surgery that would save him from becoming paralyzed. He's pictured with his wife, Wendy, left, and daughter Lois, right. (Photo: Courtesy of Henry Wang)

The symptoms just kept getting worse.

By the spring of 2009, what had begun in January as a strange tingling and numbness in Henry Wang’s left pinky and baby toe, had spread up the left side of his body.

He now felt sporadic numbness, tingling and needle pain in his neck, left arm, left foot and left thigh. Wang’s fingers also started to cramp and his legs became heavier, making it difficult for him to go jogging – a favourite activity.

Cause unknown

As the deterioration progressed, his muscles became weaker. But the worst part was not knowing why it was happening.

In May of that year, Wang’s family doctor had sent him for an MRI to see what was causing the symptoms. But not even the specialist who reviewed his test results could determine what was happening.

It was definitely not an enjoyable time,” said Wang, age 53, an information technology consultant who lives in Pickering, Ont. “Daily activities were becoming difficult and the numbing sensation I was experiencing made it hard to concentrate.”

“Because I wasn’t sure what was happening, I gave up any activity where falling could be a risk,” he continued, noting he could no longer play volleyball. “This condition was really affecting my quality of life.”

Finally, an answer

Wang was finally diagnosed as having cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM). In his case, it was caused by a hardening of ligaments along the spine into bone (or, in medical terms, the ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament (OPLL)).

CSM is the leading cause of spinal cord dysfunction in the world, mostly affects people over the age of 50 and is very common in people of Asian and South Asian descent.

Over time, the normal process of aging can sometimes lead to the narrowing of the spinal canal creating pressure on the spinal cord. As CSM progresses, it causes many of the symptoms that Wang was experiencing and can eventually lead to paralysis.

Seeking out the best

It was a relief to have the condition identified, but next came the worry of what to do next. In most conditions that involve compression of the spinal cord, the approach is to alleviate symptoms and pain with medication but surgery is only used in the most severe cases.

Since Wang’s symptoms had worsened dramatically in such a short amount of time, it was recommended he have surgery.

He began doing research about this option and soon came across the name of Dr. Michael Fehlings, a neurosurgeon at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital – a leader in the treatment of spinal cord injuries.

Wang knew he wanted Dr. Fehlings to take him on as a patient.

“All the doctors I met during my diagnosis were capable, but Fehlings is really the authority in this area and I wanted him to perform the surgery,” he said.

At the time, Fehlings was conducting a clinical trial in North America. The study showed that surgery was an effective way of treating all levels of severity of CSM and that the earlier surgery was performed, the more likely neurological damage would be reversed.

The results of that trial were published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery on September 18, 2013. Wang was enrolled in a follow-up study of that trial.

“CSM is the most common cause of spinal cord impairment and is often misdiagnosed which allows for the disease to progress,” said Fehlings.

“With few existing treatments available for patients such as Wang, it is encouraging to have data showing improvements in quality of life as a result of surgery, in some cases, even reversing serious neurological damage that could have resulted in paralysis.”

Opting for surgery

With up to 60 per cent compression in his spinal cord, Wang chose to have surgery. On Nov. 13, 2009, Fehlings performed the operation.

Immediately after the surgery, the numbness was gone and the rest of the symptoms disappeared soon after. 
“I am very grateful for the kindness and treatment I received,” Wang said. “I really feel I received the best care from the entire team at the hospital.”

Almost four years after the surgery, Wang maintains the mobility and function he regained from the procedure.
He has resumed his daily activities and, although still careful about playing sports, is happy to have his life return to normal.

He is even happier to know that his treatment has stopped the steady progression to paralysis he was previously facing.

“There was no other option for me but to have the surgery,” Wang said. “If I hadn’t had it, I don’t know what state I would be in right now.”​

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