“LIFE IMPROVEMENT: A Change of Perspective Surgery

Mar. 20, 2007

Surgery to correct scoliosis has made William Pfersching more appreciative of the little things


William Pfersching returned to his job as executive chef at Canyon Gate Country Club last month about two inches taller and with his longtime scoliosis corrected. Photo by Ronda Churchill.

Pfersching and his wife, Gina, with stepson Ryan, were married in September and had to deal with pre-surgical what-ifs newlyweds don’t usually face.
Photo by Ralph Fountain.

William Pfersching and his stepson, Ryan, 2, enjoy Sunday morning playtime at their home.
Photo by Ralph Fountain.

When William Pfersching had major surgery on his back last November, he knew — he hoped — it would give him a new lease on life physically.

And it did. The surgery to correct the scoliosis Pfersching has had since childhood straightened his spine, corrected his posture, improved his breathing and even made him two inches taller.

What Pfersching didn’t expect is that the surgery, and the long and often painful recuperation that followed, would change his life in other ways, too. And while those changes are less visible, Pfersching and his wife, Gina, consider them as significant as any of the others.

Pfersching, who works as executive chef of Canyon Gate Country Club, is a Type-A kind of guy who’s passionate about his work, passionate about his play and passionate about his family, which last fall officially grew to include his wife, son Bryan, 22, and stepson Ryan, 2.

But, in late May, Pfersching’s childhood caught up with him.

“I was standing in my kitchen up here at Canyon Gate,” he recalls, “and I felt like somebody stabbed me in the back with a hot knife.”

Pfersching was being revisited by scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of his spine that was first diagnosed when he was 8.

Between the ages of 9 and 16, Pfersching underwent seven surgeries during which doctors placed rods in his back to brace and guide his crooked but still-growing spine. Then, when Pfersching was 16, doctors fused his spine to keep it from growing further and, ideally, keep it straight for as long as possible.

Since then, the scoliosis hadn’t affected Pfersching’s adult life in any significant way. He became a chef. He enjoyed scuba diving and weight lifting. He kept in shape, in part because it helped to counteract the effects of the scoliosis.

Not that most people would even notice it. According to Gina Pfersching, only when her husband wore a T-shirt or swimsuit could someone see that, because of the way his spine curved, one of his shoulders was about 1 1/2 inches lower than the other.

When the pain finally hit him at work, Pfersching suspected it had something to do with the scoliosis. But, he adds, “I didn’t know it had gotten as bad as it had gotten.”

“I hadn’t had my back X-rayed for probably 20 years,” he says. “Basically, for 24 years, I didn’t have any problems.”

Pfersching and Gina were married in September, but have been together for about a year-and-a-half. When the attack came, Gina says, it was “like our worst fears coming true.”

When Pfersching was younger, “doctors had told him he’d be in a wheelchair by 40,” she says. “Here, he was 41 and in excruciating back pain. “I think our world started collapsing a little bit. He’d done so much, and everything he’d accomplished would be in vain.”

Pfersching needed surgery, but doctors he talked with called the necessary procedure risky. One told Pfersching that complexity of the operation — which would involve reconfiguring his spine in four places — was “not something the average doctor deals with on a daily basis.”

Another said that he could fuse Pfersching’s lower back to make it stable, but that Pfersching’s posture would still shift to the left. Another, Pfersching says, even predicted that the corrective surgery would carry with it “a 95-percent chance of paralysis.”

Finally, a referral led Pfersching and his wife to Dr. Robert Pashman, Director of Scoliosis and Spinal Deformity at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Institute for Spinal Disorders in Los Angeles.

“Once we found Dr. Pashman,” Gina recalls, “it was like something from above.”

Gina liked it that Pashman spent time focusing not only on how many degrees her husband’s spine could be straightened, but on how surgery would improve the quality of Pfersching’s life. Pfersching liked Pashman’s confidence.

“I said, ‘What are the odds I could be paralyzed?’ ” Pfersching says. “He said, ‘If I had any thoughts at all of you being paralyzed in the slightest bit, I wouldn’t do it.’ “

According to Pashman, the degenerative nature of scoliosis combined with the natural effects of aging had allowed the unfused, lower part of Pfersching’s spine to degenerate. His plan was to fuse Pfersching’s entire spine, from the base of his neck to his tail bone, to create a base for the spine’s reconstruction.

That reconstruction would take place during three complex operations over a period of several days. During the first operation, two bone grafts would be placed in Pfersching’s lower spine. Then, the rods Pfersching has had since childhood would be removed. Finally, a series of screws would be placed up and down the spine to serve as anchor points for new rods.

Pfersching agreed to the surgery. But first, he saw a lawyer to draw up a will and draft some necessary legal documents. Then, Pfersching wrote letters to Gina and his family, just, he says, “in case something happened.”

“That’s a hard thing to do,” he says. “You write four words and you start crying. You don’t know what to say.”

Pfersching and Gina also spent time talking about scary what-ifs newlyweds seldom have to face. “We had to have that conversation (about) what would happen if something goes wrong in surgery,” says Gina.

Pfersching had surgeries on Nov. 6, Nov. 13 and Nov. 15 at Cedars-Sinai. He spent a total of about 30 hours in the operating room and 28 days recuperating at the hospital before returning home.

The recovery didn’t go as smoothly as Pfersching had envisioned. He spent the first few days feeling as though his whole body was on “hyperactive nerve alert. You’d get a lot of tingling in the hands and elbows. It was hard to sleep or rest, my body was in such a state of shock.”

Also, an adverse reaction to a painkiller gave Pfersching hallucinations. That was particularly scary for Gina and his family, he notes, because the reaction could just as easily have resulted from neurological damage suffered during surgery.

Gina said the 29 days her husband spent in the hospital were a frightening roller coaster ride made up of good days, bad days and every other kind of day in-between. “Every emotion you feel all at once and 100 times a day,” she says.

Now, Pfersching is back at home and, as of Feb. 20, back at work. He still takes painkillers, but the acute pain has been replaced by “more like a tightness, a soreness. It’s not a sharp pain. It’s like a restrictive soreness.”

Pfersching eventually will be able to do pretty much everything physically that he did before, Pashman said. But, right now, Pfersching is still taking it easy, moving slowly to prevent pulls and strains of muscles he’s not used to using.

“Slow” also describes Pfersching’s approach to life nowadays. The surgery was “a life-altering thing,” he says. “When you do it, you just appreciate everything so much more.”

Flowers. Trees. The virtues of a lazy Sunday night. And, most of all, people.

“When you have to depend on people every day just to get out of bed, to get you to the sink, to bring you a drink of water because you can’t move,” Pfersching says. “I think you lose a little bit of pride and start to appreciate everybody around you a little more.”

Gina adds that the intense experience she and her husband have shared at the start of their young marriage has made their commitment to each other even stronger.

“We got to know each other all over again,” she says, “and our life fast-forwarded, but in a great way.”