Like any fourteen-year-old preparing for high school, Emily Lemiska felt self-conscious about her appearance. She wasn’t worried about her weight, hair or skin. Emily was self-conscious about her abnormally short neck. She asked her parents to make an appointment with her pediatrician to take a look. Emily, her parents and her doctor alike were shocked when an X-ray showed she had Klippel-Feil syndrome (KFS).
Klippel-Feil is a spine disorder characterized by the fusion of two or more cervical vertebrae, which decreases range of motion and flexibility in the neck. It is known to cause pain, especially later in life, and increases the dangers of even minor trauma to the neck. With reports estimating the condition occurs in one in 40,000 live births, KFS is considered a rare disease. Emily’s case is even more atypical in that seven of her vertebras, C2-T1, are fused.
Fortunately, Emily was asymptomatic, with no pain or discomfort. Nor did she appear to have any of the additional abnormalities – ranging from heart defects to hearing loss – sometimes associated with KFS. Although she could no longer participate in some of her favorite activities like playing volleyball or riding rollercoasters, which put her at risk of whiplash or other injuries, she was able to maintain a normal life. While doctors continued to monitor her neck annually, her health thankfully stayed the same. Although she felt a little isolated because of her condition, for the most part, instead of worrying about KFS, Emily was able to worry about the usual teenage woes like boys and grades.
Determined to experience life to the fullest, Emily left her small town in Connecticut to attend Northeastern University in Boston. She excelled in her classes, formed friendships with a tight-knit group of honors students, and met her now-husband, Dan. She was extremely active in extracurricular activities, serving as editor-in-chief of the literary arts magazine, vice chair of student media and copy editor at the newspaper. Even with her busy schedule at school, she managed to work part-time and volunteer on a regular basis.
In 2008, after a semester abroad in Barcelona, Emily graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English. She accepted a position at Mass General Hospital in the public affairs department, where she served as editor of the hospital-wide newsletter, spearheaded communications campaigns and interacted with local media. Her job was chaotic at times, but she loved it. She took pride in her work and became a valuable asset to the team.
Emily found an outlet from her demanding job in the form of running and weightlifting. She liked the way physical activity made her feel, and the doctors who continued to monitor her encouraged an active lifestyle. She had no idea that an upcoming five-mile run would change the course of her entire life.
That springtime “fun run” around the Charles River in 2011 would be the last time she ever ran. The day after the race, Emily was startled by brutal shoulder and neck spasms that crippled her with pain. When they didn’t subside in a few days, she made an appointment to see her doctor. He was perplexed. X-rays and MRIs didn’t reveal any reason for her sudden symptoms. He assumed she strained a few muscles, prescribed Valium and a neck brace, and suggested taking it easy for a few weeks.
The next two months were torture. Emily couldn’t use her arms or lift anything without excruciating muscle pain; even typing at work irritated her shoulder muscles. With every movement, her entire spine felt as though it was being yanked. Walking and riding the bus to and from work became dreaded endeavors, and any vibration caused unimaginable discomfort. Getting through the workday became her sole focus: she quit exercising, stopped volunteering at the local library and declined invitations from friends. Dan and her two roommates had to help her with even the smallest tasks, like making dinner and cleaning.
The symptoms only intensified. In July, Emily woke up before dawn to discover her left side completely numb. Terrified, she called her parents and then took a taxi to the emergency room. Again, the doctors were at a loss.
The ER visit led to a consult with a neurosurgeon. Within minutes of reviewing her neck imaging, the physician told Emily and her dad that she had another abnormality besides fused vertebrae: a tethered spinal cord. This neurological disorder is caused when spinal cord tissue attaches to the spinal column, limiting the movement of the spinal cord. He also discovered that in the same area, Emily had diastematomyelia or a split spinal cord. In hopes of halting the progression of these conditions and lessening the pain, he proposed emergency neurosurgery to untether her spinal cord.
Dan’s commitment never wavered despite the stress on their relationship. In fact, he embraced Emily more fully than ever, proposing to her three days prior to her operation. In the days leading up to surgery, Dan began referring to her as his “brave little toaster,” a reference to the 1987 Disney movie about an animated toaster who faces many obstacles on his journey to find his owner.
The six-hour surgery, by technical standards, was a success, and the spinal cord was freed from the spinal column. After seven days in the ICU, she went home to Connecticut to finish her recovery. Determined to return to normal life, Emily went back to work only a month and a half later. She immediately realized she had returned too soon. The pain returned quickly and with vengeance.
For the next year and a half, Emily put on a brave front as she tried to keep the life she loved. Work was excruciating – she would sneak off to lie down in the conference room, come in late and leave early, and work from home as much as possible.
“I was absolutely miserable, but too stubborn to show it outright. By the time I got home at night all I had the energy to do was cry. I felt completely dehumanized by pain.”
Weekends were no longer spent enjoying all that Boston had to offer. Instead, she would lie in bed, trying to recover from the week before and prepare for the one ahead. All the while, the muscle spasms and nerve pain were unrelenting.
Her frequent doctor visits left her discouraged as well. While following the doctors’ suggestions, nothing subdued the pain. Because her muscles were irritated and her spinal cord increasingly sensitive post-surgery, treatments like physical therapy and injections would sometimes even exacerbate her issues.
In December 2012, Emily made the difficult decision to leave her position at Mass General Hospital. Much of how she defined herself was her successful career. Quitting was a huge loss, but she had no choice. With Klippel-Feil being a degenerative syndrome, Emily had to slow down. She needed to change tactics, and instead of constantly playing defense against her aggressive symptoms, she had to go on the offense. It was important for her to protect her baseline so as to not regress further.
Back in Connecticut, Emily and Dan moved in with her parents for six months before finding an apartment nearby. Emily’s dad now drives her wherever she needs to go, and her mom, a registered nurse, attends all of her major doctor’s appointments. This extra help has been much appreciated – knowing that Emily would not be able to work, Dan is attending law school in hopes that his career might make enough income for two.
To manage the pain, Emily takes more than 10 pills a day. Eager to be free from the side effects of her medications – including fatigue and mental cloudiness – Emily continues to pursue treatments that don’t come in tablet form. She and Dan also hope to someday start a family, and the drugs she takes are not conducive to pregnancy. Among the options she is considering is a spinal fusion surgery. This would entail implanting rods and screws to reinforce her spine. Although it might be her best option, there are great risks involved, and doctors are not sure whether it will help significantly. The rarity of her case means it is impossible to know whether it’s the right decision – there is nothing to compare to, no KFS studies to point to a positive outcome.
If she does choose to have surgery, Emily knows that it may not be a full solution. She hopes that the right combination of Western medicine and complementary therapies might bring relief. An epidural nerve block, for example, decreased nerve pain in her face for a short time. Acupuncture and massage also help with the pain, as does wearing a neck brace and heat and ice therapy. To keep the rest of her body active, Emily stretches every day, goes for short walks several times a week and recently began swimming. All of these activities require modifications; for example, she swims using a snorkel mask to avoid having to move her neck to breathe. But Emily says that doing an adapted version is far better than doing nothing at all. The goal of being a mom and publishing her personal writing one day drives her to stay positive and proactive during her search for better answers.
Emily’s life has completely changed due to the progression of her disease. She has had to redefine herself entirely. Not being able to work, having put such emphasis on her job, has been a major loss. She misses her hobbies, like running, playing the piano, cooking and volunteering. It especially bothers her that she can no longer help others, but instead, is the one who constantly needs help.
“It is hard to be 28 and unable to enjoy life as much as I want to,” she says. “My to-do list and my body don’t see eye-to-eye. Each day I have to find a balance between pushing myself enough to feel accomplished, but not so much that I’m hurting myself.”
Emily still does the things she loves, but in small doses with lots of rest in between. And even though her activity is limited, she says she never feels bored. To keep busy, she reads, listens to podcasts and TED talks, takes online courses, meditates and writes. She continues to do occasional writing projects as a freelancer, but only as the pain allows. She also enjoys taking trips with Dan and having friends over to visit. Emily jokes that even with all she does, it’s difficult not to feel like a professional sick person. Much of her daily routine consists of taking care of herself, scheduling appointments and dealing with insurance and disability paperwork.
While initially denied disability earlier this year, thanks to help from a state health care advocate, she was approved in September after a long appeal process. The stress of being disbelieved and misjudged was difficult to take. Knowing there is a negative public view of those needing to use disability benefits, she wishes others understood that the majority applying for help really need it. Like her, they want to work but are truly unable to due to severe health limitations. Without assistance, she is incapable of supporting herself. In fact, she and Dan had to rely on food stamps for a few months just to get by.
Emily is not ashamed talking about her personal trials, even financial ones. In fact, she is very open about the truth many in the pain community experience every day, even when it is hard for others to hear. She feels if more people were open about their hardships, there would be fewer stigmas and less misunderstanding about chronic pain. She believes sharing struggles does not make a person weak or vulnerable, but shows strength.
For this reason, Emily keeps a blog. Not only is it personally cathartic for her, but it is also a way for family and friends to stay in the loop. Occasionally, posts are so widely shared that they serve to help increase awareness about chronic pain among individuals outside her inner circle.
Emily believes all who live with pain should keep some sort of blog. It is a way to express emotions that might otherwise be difficult to release, while allowing those who know you a chance to understand more about your challenges.
Through her experiences, Emily realizes that giving up is not an option. If she could stress one thing to her pain peers it would be to become an expert on their particular diseases. “You have to advocate and fight for your care. Answers may be difficult to find, but never stop searching or hoping. It may take time, but the medical community makes advances every day. You don’t want to be the one to give up the day before they find the treatment the helps you.”
Emily keeps abreast of developments in spine care through Google Alerts and by reading research abstracts from medical journals. She stays on top of her own care by requesting and reading her medical records, bringing a list of questions and taking notes during appointments, and getting multiple second opinions when necessary.
Emily also stays connected and informed through the resources she receives from the Klippel-Feil Syndrome Freedom. This small, grassroots nonprofit is trying to help people afflicted with the disease obtain support, strength and information. Created by other Klippel-Feil patients, the organization is personally dedicated to the cause.
Through this group, Emily finally met another individual with this disease, fourteen years after her diagnosis. Being able to connect with someone like her was life changing. For the first time, Emily did not feel so isolated and alone in the world. She had met someone who fully understood – and she was delighted to see that this fellow patient had two children of her own.
In her small way, she is doing her part to advance care for KFS patients. She is working on a KFS survey to collect data on patterns of abnormalities, symptoms and treatments tried. She hopes the results will help inform the medical community while empowering those living with the devastating disease. She is also planning a holiday fundraiser for 2015 – featuring a skeleton key holiday ornament – with proceeds benefiting KFS Freedom.
Cheerful and determined, Emily chooses to live in gratitude. While Klippel-Feil is progressive, she knows she is blessed with an amazing support system. Her parents, friends and husband go above and beyond to show her she is loved and that she is never alone. Her doctors aren’t sure how much worse her condition might become as time passes. But Emily is not giving up on life; rather, she is embracing it.
“People often seem surprised at how positive I am,” says Emily. “We all have a tendency to underestimate ourselves. No matter what life throws at you, you can and will find a way to live the best life possible.”
Klippel-Feil Syndrome Freedom –
Klippel-Feil Syndrome Alliance – http://kfsalliance.org
Klippel-Feil Syndrome Alliance Facebook page –