"If you need surgery, please don't be scared"

 “I felt completely safe and well taken care of from the minute I walked into the hospital doors,” said Jim Archuletta, who had back surgery in April at Intermountain Medical Center during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was so grateful to have the surgery that I didn’t have time to be anxious or apprehensive.”

Jim had severe back pain earlier this year that had started to affect his ability to walk. In March, he saw back surgeon Stephen Warner, MD, who determined he had spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spaces within his spine that put pressure on his nerves. Jim was told surgery was elective at that point due to statewide surgery restrictions implemented at the start of the pandemic. Dr. Warner suggested physical therapy instead. Jim tried it for a week and went downhill every day. 

Jim’s therapist called Dr. Warner to let him know how bad Jim was doing. “I gave him a hug, I was so happy and grateful,” Jim said. The next morning, he met with Dr. Warner, who determined his surgery was no longer elective. Jim needed five vertebrae in his lower back fused. Two surgeons would work together to place two rods and ten screws during a seven-hour procedure. 

Surgery during a pandemic

On the day of surgery, Jim’s wife Sue had to drop him off at the hospital all alone due to pandemic-related visitor restrictions. “That was hard,” she said. “It was cold, dark, and rainy when I dropped him off at 5:30 a.m. I was nervous and kept thinking, what if I never see him again alive?”

“I was the first patient on the schedule,” Jim said. “The staff was so kind, asking what they could do for me. I was hot and they went and got me a portable fan and set it up for me. They were so attentive.”

“As the team prepared me for surgery, Dr. Warner came in to calm my fears and answer any questions. The anesthesiologist was also very kind and understanding. They were both so thoughtful and comforting and let me know they’d take good care of me.”

Complications give way to comfort

About an hour into the surgery, Sue saw the hospital calling — which scared her. It was Dr. Warner, calling to report a complication. He apologized that he couldn’t talk to her face-to-face. He explained that Jim’s blood pressure had dropped and his apnea was causing his oxygen levels to drop really low, which is dangerous during surgery. He asked if he should proceed with the surgery or cancel it.

“The doctor was really straightforward but also empathetic when he said, ‘This is really risky, I want you to know that,’” she said. Sue knew Jim would be very unhappy without the surgery and he was aware of the risks before he went under, so she told Dr. Warner to continue. 

“They were so good to call me with updates several times during surgery,” Sue added. “The caretakers went overboard to be thoughtful since they knew Jim was alone. They know it’s really hard for families to be separated.”

A successful outcome

Jim’s surgery was a success. During his four-day hospital stay, FaceTime was a life-safer for Sue, who couldn’t be at his bedside. “I could see what he looked like – if his color was good and he looked healthy, it was reassuring. That sure meant a lot to me. I would tell all families to bring an iPad or phone to the hospital to FaceTime.”

“I actually got to talk to the doctor more than normal,” she added. “He called me many times with updates, which was so reassuring to my family. That really showed empathy and concern.” 

“I had a very positive experience,” Jim added. “When I rang my call button, they’d come within one minute to help with all my needs. They gave me excellent care.”

Since his surgery, Jim has seen Dr. Warner twice in person for follow-ups. His primary care provider, King Udall, MD, also called to check how he was doing and scheduled a video visit using Google Duo.  

"If you need surgery, please don't be hesitant."

Jim’s advice to others who need to seek medical care at this time: “If you need surgery, please don’t be hesitant because of the Coronavirus. The caretakers at Intermountain are very caring, attentive, careful, and concerned about your safety. They’re willing to do anything to ease your worries. It was a necessary procedure and they made me feel very comfortable and at ease, even more so than at normal times.”