Finding hope in the midst of pain
Brent Gillund hurried down the stairs to meet with his doctoral advisor one August afternoon in 2000 at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He slipped on the top step, falling six feet over four steps. And landed on his tailbone.
That one misstep would lead to seven years of narcotic pain medication use to deal with the relentless pain in his legs and back. Pain that hovered at a five on a scale of one to 10, flaring to an eight.
Gillund, then 31, experienced annular tears and disc herniation in five discs in his lumbar region. Simply put, the spinal disc is like a jelly donut. The fall caused the “jelly” to leak out of the disc’s rubbery exterior, or annulus. As a result, his discs decompressed, irritating nearby nerves.
The National Institutes of Health reports tens of million Americans suffer from chronic pain.
Unable to continue his part-time job as a hospital orderly, Gillund became an adjunct instructor at an area college. He saw six doctors, including a pain management specialist, in the next seven years. Each doctor prescribed narcotics and encouraged him to lose weight. (He weighed 310 pounds at the time of the accident.) Gillund progressed from hydrocodone, to percocet, to oxycodone, followed by a fentanyl patch, to methadone.
The opioids left him groggy and provided no pain relief. Life became more demanding as Gillund and his wife, Brenda Jo, welcomed twins in 2002. And he began a new position as a behavior management/education specialist at a psychiatric hospital in Grand Forks.
His weight crept up to 340 pounds. Pain disrupted his sleep, and Gillund resorted to sleeping in his recliner.
Gillund underwent intradiscal electrothermal therapy, IDET, on two discs in 2004. This procedure basically cauterizes the nerve endings within the disc wall to help block the pain signals. Gillund gained some relief. But he was still on narcotics for the other three discs.
By 2007, Gillund was fed up with the narcotics and carefully weaned himself off methadone. He met with his pain management specialist to “fire” him. That’s when the specialist encouraged Gillund to see Dr. Majid Ghazi, a board-certified anesthesiologist and interventional pain physician in Fargo.
Desperate for relief, Gillund scheduled an appointment. Ghazi performed a thorough examination. And then Ghazi said, “I think there is something we can try.”
That moment was “life-changing” for Gillund.
“Not having hope for so long, emotionally it was the possibility of having a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders,” Gillund says.
Neuromodulation therapy uses implanted medical device technology to interrupt or modify the pain signals originating from the spinal area before the brain is able to interpret the message.
Neuromodulation therapies provide greater pain control than narcotics. And they eliminate common opioid side effects such as constipation, drowsiness and mental cloudiness.
Spinal cord stimulator surgery is a two-part procedure. First, a trial run is performed in a sterile environment, where (wire) leads are placed through the skin and up the spinal column. Patients are under intravenous sedation, known as conscious sedation.
Gillund remembers waking from the trial procedure in full pain. Then he was handed the stimulator control. Gillund adjusted it until he felt no pain.
“I sobbed,” Gillund recalls “I was in control again. It was liberating.”
After the trial run, Ghazi determined Gillund was a candidate for permanent implantation of the device. Ghazi removed the temporary leads, and staff scheduled surgery after the trial area was completely healed.
Gillund underwent the implantation on August 22, 2007. Similar to a pacemaker, the spinal stimulator is battery operated device. Gillund’s first battery was a non-rechargeable unit and lasted three years. He received an upgrade with a rechargeable battery in 2010.
He describes 2007 as his “miracle year.” Bariatric surgery in December 2007 enabled Gillund to lose more than 100 pounds. The weight loss allowed him to back away from needing the stimulator every day.
Since 2016, Gillund has worked as the associate director of clinical operations at Axis Clinicals USA in Dilworth, Minn. He began his research career at PRACS Institute in East Grand Forks, Minn., in 2006. Gillund resides with his family in West Fargo, N.D.
And on the days when he feels pain, Gillund turns on the stimulator for an hour or two to get through the worst. “Before it was on 24/7,” he says. He describes the sensation as a “vibrating massager on the inside.”
“Never give up hope,” Gillund says. “Even when several doctors say there is nothing they can do, keep searching.”
“Dr. Ghazi saved my life,” Gillund adds. “He gave me hope when others didn’t. He gave me my life back. I will gladly shout it from the mountaintops. Thank you, Dr. Ghazi!”
In 2019 he underwent replacement of his spinal cord stimulator battery. “Never give up hope,” says. “Even when several doctors say there is nothing they can do, keep searching.”
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