Neil Cullinan

Neil CullinanRegards from New York City: how one man ended up in the Big Apple after a long journey down South

Neil Cullinan saw himself on film, and he didn't like something he saw. Not one bit. The film showed Cullinan escorting his daughter across their garden on her wedding day. That he liked. But what he didn't like was seeing himself favoring one hip. The scene reminded him of this growing discomfort.

Now retired, Cullinan had launched a mobile MRI business two decades ago; so, he called on friends and colleagues, many in medicine, asking if they could recommend a physician to help him with his hip. The name James Roberson kept popping up. Roberson is chairman of the department of orthopaedics at Emory University.

Fortunately, Cullinan was familiar with Emory and with Atlanta. He and his wife used to own a condominium in town. And Roberson, as it happened, was practicing surgery halfway between Cullinan's two homes one in Macon, GA and the other in Greeneville, SC. So, Cullinan thought he'd pay Roberson a visit.

"I was immediately struck by what a great fellow he is," says Cullinan. "I was talking with him about a limited slide in my quality of life, not being able to play tennis without pain, and wanting an immediate fix. And he was wise enough to send me on my way. He told me to come back in six months." And that's just what Cullinan did after his hip pain worsened. The two agreed it was time for a hip replacement.

"I remember walking into his office a month after the surgery without a cane or crutches or anything," says Cullinan. "And one thing that struck me was the length of the scar on my hip. It must be about an inch or an inch and a half. I wondered how did they get all that stuff in there."

A few years later, while still enjoying his new hip, Cullinan began having headaches that seemed different than headaches he had previously experienced. "I read a lot, so for a long time I didn't think about the headaches, but I started to notice that their quality was different, constant," says Cullinan. An MRI revealed a pituitary macroadenoma, a tumor of the pituitary gland.

Because of his trust in Roberson, Cullinan asked him for guidance. Roberson recommended the vice chair of Emory's department of neurosurgery Nelson Oyesiku, whom Cullinan later asked to perform the surgery. "I knew Emory and had a great deal of confidence in the system here," says Cullinan. "I knew people would not be brought on to Emory's faculty without exquisite credentials."

Oyesiku, who has performed more than 1,500 surgeries for pituitary tumors, performed the surgery on Cullinan in early 2009.

Cullinan went home and immediately started taking short walks around his neighborhood. "Being told one has a large brain tumor pressing on the optic nerve has a way of focusing your attention," he says. "You wonder if this is the end."

A few months after the brain surgery, Cullinan began returning to normal. He felt fine, but he noticed marked weakness in his legs. "I kept working out, kept trying to build endurance, but I had a lot of leg weakness," Cullinan recalls. "It was difficult to stand for any period of time. At first I attributed it to my 68 years and the recovery from the brain surgery. But at some point, I thought something else might be going on. I had lived with sciatic leg pain for years. Now, it was worse."

So once again Cullinan contacted Roberson who recommended he see Emory orthopedic surgeon, Dr John Heller. Cullinan did. And Heller diagnosed two problems: spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal; and lumbar spondylosis, movement between two vertebra, characterized by muscle weakness. Surgery was scheduled.

"I have to say I wasn't too enthusiastic about a second major surgery in the same year", Cullinan admitted.

But before the surgery could take place, the weakness in Cullinan's lower body worsened and because of the risk of serious complications, Heller asked Cullinan to come to Emory that afternoon. Heller operated the next day.

"He put rods and screws in L4-L5, and I went home," says Cullinan.

"In several weeks time I was feeling so much better and began pestering Dr Heller to let me 'chip and putt'," says Cullinan. "My back feels so good, I now play golf regularly. It's mind boggling to me.
                            
I've had the good fortune to find three exceptional surgeons, three extraordinary men, in the span of a few years, to operate on me.  I'm overwhelmed with what they and their support staff have done to restore the quality of my life. Recently I was in New York City, just walking around the streets, pain free like any ordinary person. I sent each surgeon a postcard thanking each for restoring the quality of my life. I'm grateful beyond words."

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