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My spinal operation in Mexicali, Mexico

I have been plagued with a back pains since 1996. Originally, a doctor had prescribed Soma to relieve the pain. Later, as the pain increased, and Soma did not help, I had treatments of steroid shots from a new doctor in the States.

First, I had three steroid shots in my neck, and that helped, but not for too long. I then had another three shots into my lower back which relieved the pain, but only temporarily.

Dr. Zazueta's office

Dr. Zazueta's office

None of my U.S. doctors made any attempt to diagnose the cause of my condition.

It was only when we came to live in Mexicali that I was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) in 2008.  I had an MRI taken of my lower back, due to my increasing back pains here in Mexicali. My spine surgeon, Dr Carlos Maya, detected a slight scoliosis, but thought my condition might be due to a herniated disc. At the time, it did not appear to be so serious as to operate. (I covered this in my prior page, “Healthcare we couldn’t afford in America.”)

After that visit to Dr. Maya, my back pain continued to worsen, and my ability to use my left leg was getting less and less. My lower back was in burning pain and there was numbness, tingling sensation from my lower back all the way down to my left leg.

This change in my ability to walk frightened me. I was disintegrating rapidly.

Now, in 2009, I went to see Dr Carlos Maya again and he sent me off for another MRI.

After collecting my new MRI, my husband, Jim, and I arrived at Dr Maya’s a bit early, at 6:00pm. We also had the results of my blood test for Dr. Maya. His waiting area was swamped with patients.

In Mexico, you don’t make an appointment with your doctor (and wait a couple of months like in the U.S.) – you just go to his office.

As usual Dr. Maya’s reception room was swamped with patients.  We waited and, finally, at 7:00pm the receptionist said it was our turn to see the doctor.

Dr. Maya greeted us with his usual friendly attitude, a nice comparison to the grave attitude of some of my U.S. doctors.

He took a quick look at the results of my blood test, and said, “Good.” He then took a look at my MRI and after a brief inspection said, “You have a Tarlov Cyst.  See this white spot right here…that’s a cyst on your spine.  That cyst may have been your problem, all along.”

Dr. Maya then opened the radiologist’s written MRI report. It confirmed what Dr. Maya had seen – that I had a Tarlov Cyst.

“You know, this is a very rare condition, “said Dr. Maya. I have seen it only twice in twenty years.”

“To be sure where the pain is coming from, I want you to have a nerve conduction test,” said Dr. Maya, writing down a referral, “and see where the pain in your back is coming from for me to operate. You will see Dr. Zazueta – this is very important!”

Well, I was in a state of shock, and so was Jim.  I had a cyst in my lower spine!

I had never heard of a nerve conduction test. It sounded like a great idea, especially since it could determine where the pain was coming from.

On Saturday, Jim took me to Dr. Zazueta’s office. Even though the nerve conduction test involved sticking some small needles in my back, it was not painful.

Jim collected results of my nerve test from Dr. Zazueta on Monday, September 7th, Labor Day, but it was not Labor Day in Mexico.

With the test results, we went to see Dr. Maya at 7:00pm. As usual, his waiting room was filled with patients – patients with arm slings, patients with canes like me, a woman who had her neck in a brace, a young boy with a bandaged left hand, all waiting to see Dr. Maya. There were patients holding onto their MRIs, sealed in big flat brown paper envelopes.

There was also an Englishman waiting for his turn. Jim started talking to him. The fellow works in Mexicali, and had a back operation done by Dr Maya, and was waiting for his final checkup. He was very pleased with his operation.  His wife, a Mexican lady, and new baby were there with him. Even the baby was smiling.

There were so many people that the receptionist had to bring in more chairs.

I was looking forward Dr Maya’s explanation of just what my nerve conduction tests showed.

Finally, our turn came. Dr Maya opened the sealed envelope from Dr. Zazueta, and confirmed that my “new friend,” the Tarlov Cyst was giving me all the excruciating pain from my lower back down to my swollen left leg.

Just like a nerve irritating a tooth, my Tarlov Cyst was sitting between nerves on my spine! Dr Maya made me lie down on the couch, and did his own nerve test.  He checked both of my lower legs, with a sharp object, and asked: “Which leg feels this pinch? Right leg or left leg?”

I said, “My right leg feels the sharp prick – the left leg not so much.”

“That is consistent with your tests,” said Dr Maya as he helped me off the couch, and back to my chair.

“Are you ready to have the operation?” Dr. Maya asked.

“Yes, Dr Maya.  Right now, I am in so much pain, this is no life,” I said.

“Dr  Maya, I want to check into the hospital as soon as possible.  At this point in my life, I am in so much pain, that I find it difficult to walk.  The medications that I am on, especially the cortisone pills have made me into a bloated moonfaced person. What day do you think will be good for you to operate on me?”

“Thursday morning, at 9:00pm is a good time. Wednesday, I will be going to Tijuana, to do an operation and I will be back in the late afternoon. Yes, Thursday will be fine.” said Dr Maya.

I couldn’t help but think of an American lady with a similar condition. She has a blog, too. She called a specialist, and he did not return the call for five weeks. When he did, he gave her instructions as to what tests she must take and to “send them in.” The poor lady is dealing, at least so far, with a voice on the telephone. All I can say is “Viva Mexico.”

“Can I check in Wednesday evening?” I asked Dr. Maya.

“Yes, or Thursday morning – it’s up to you,” he answered.

Since my operation was scheduled for early morning, Jim and I agreed that it would be best to check in the evening before.

The hospital's hallway

The hospital's hallway

Dr. Maya recommended a not-so-expensive hospital, as the operating room was just as good as those in the big name hospitals here.

Jim and I wanted to save money, but I really did not know what to expect of a “not-so-expensive” hospital. Still I had faith in Dr. Maya’s recommendation.

Wednesday evening, I packed a bag, and Jim drove me to the hospital – Centro Quirurgico del Vallee, or Valley Surgical Center.

My room at the hospital

My room at the hospital

The hospital was a small, one-story affair. I noticed that the reception room was immaculate as Jim checked me in.

After checking in, a nurse walked us down a beautiful hallway, and into a large immaculate private room, with a private bath – WOW!

“What’s this? The Waldorf,” said Jim as he looked around.

My room even had a sitting area!

My room even had a sitting area!

Jim stayed for awhile, but didn’t know if he could sleep over, so he went home.

After Jim left, was I afraid? Yes! I had no idea of how I would come out of the operation. I had heard of so many cases where such operations did little to reduce the pain. I was also worried that something might go wrong. We were dealing with spinal nerves. Would I walk again?

Stay tuned – I hope to see you all on the other side of my operation.

8 comments to My spinal operation in Mexicali, Mexico

  • Hilda:
    First off, my Tarlov Cyst was never diagnosed correctly in the US. I still have my MRIs from the US, and the Tarlov Cyst is there, a white area and very easy to spot. A second MRI was done here in Mexicali, and the MRI technician spotted it immediately, and put it in his write-up. Again, in the US, neither the MRI technicians, nor my fancy and expensive doctor NEVER mentioned that they saw a cyst. The US doctor prescribed steroid pain shots – first in my neck and then in my lower spine. The entire process in the US cost $12,000+ and the steroids caused me to gain about 70 pounds (not good for the back, or for the ego!). Here in Mexicali, several days after the correct diagnosis of a Tarlov Cyst, Dr. Maya (an orthopedic surgeon) operated, with a neurosurgeon assisting. There were two nurses in the operating room and two anesthetists. After the operation I woke up pain-free for the first time in 12 years. The operation (including hospital and all other charges) cost less than the steroid shots in the US, and far less than the $150,000 you can pay in the US. I was discharged from the hospital one day after the operation. I had a large single room, two nurses in attendance, and there was a large sofa where my husband slept. Dr. Maya told me to rest in bed for an entire month to prevent scar tissue – which I did. In the US, the post-operative patients are given narcotic pain relievers such as Oxycontin, and allowed to move around immediately after the operation, which they do as the narcotics mask the post-operative pain. Moving around after the operation generates scar tissue, and hurts the healing process – to the extent where a second operation is needed or the patient never recovers. In addition, the patient usually becomes addicted to the drugs – for life. The total healing process can be long, measured in a year or so. Now I walk normally without pain, do my work around the house as before, and consider myself cured and lucky to have come to Mexicali for my operation. Dr. Maya does not have a fancy office and is very down to earth. He treats all sorts of patients. No appointment is needed. The health care here is nothing like in the US. Here the doctors charge realistic prices and care about their patients. If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask.
    God Bless,
    MaryAnn

  • Hilda Ruiz

    Hi Mary ann, can you tell me more about your Doctor, and the results you got from the surgery, as well as the method he uses?
    Thank you very much.

  • Alan:
    I have no idea what procedure my doctor used. In this post, I wrote, “This was unlike a certain US surgeon who “specializes” in Tarlov cysts, and who dopes his patients up with addicting Vicodin, and lets them move around immediately after the operation – generating scar tissue. I guess he wants to operate on them again (and again), or charge them for prescribing more opiates to feed their habit. I was very lucky to have moved to Mexicali, and lucky to get the right surgeon, Dr Carlos Maya.”
    God Bless,
    MaryAnn

  • Alan Kenyon

    MaryAnn:

    Can you explain what type of procedure the doctor in Mexico used? From my research, I was initially discouraged when I only saw one procedure that seemed to be standard in the few places that used it: draining the spinal fluid from the cyst and replacing it with fibrin. The reports on the Internet made it sound that there were only mixed results from that treatment.

    Dr. Fiegenbaum uses a different procedure that sounds quite logical as far as permanently compressing the cyst and removing pressure on nearby nerves. It sounds quite different that what I have seen thus far. Therefore, I am curious if you can explain the procedure used for you.

    Thank you, and best regards,
    Alan Kenyon

  • Nannette:
    Thanks for the kind words. It’s good to hear from someone who appreciates how good the doctors are here in Mexico.
    My doctor is excellent. I had also referred him to another party, and he did a great job for them.

    Here is his contact information:
    Dr. Carlos Maya
    Av. Riforma 1022
    Mexicali
    +52 (686) 5542960 Office

    Dr. Maya’s hours are from 6:00pm to 9:00pm with no appointment needed.
    Av. Riforma is easy to find as it is near the border.
    If you have any questions, let me know.
    God Bless,
    MaryAnn

  • Nannette

    Hello Mary Ann:

    You have brought hope to me. My son has had 2 surgeries, one with a wonderful Dr. in Mexicali , Dr. Zertuche who did a wonderful job 12 years ago but this time my son insists on an MRI which my doctor does not believe in.

    I only want to know how I can get a hold of your doctor for a second opinion and in order to have my son’s knee checked out and have him referred to the lab for the MRI.

    Thank you and God Bless you for the information you have shared with us.

    Nannette Enriquez

  • Kathlene

    Good luck MaryAnn!

  • Rob Andover

    Mary Ann, I have really enjoyed your blog here and I think you are great for posting the facts of your life in Mexico for us all to read – to give those of us with an open mind some options as things get more economically difficult in the States. I wish you the best with your operation, you sound like you are in really good hands, and I look forward to your posts of the results when you are on the other side of this! Bueno Suerte! (I think that means good luck?) Rob Andover

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