Chris' Story - Neurosciences at Fairview Southdale Hospital

My name is Chris Leaf. I’m 42 years old, and live in Minneapolis with my wife, Cristy, and our two pets, a cat and a dog. I’ve always been a very active person—despite a busy work schedule, I continue to play many sports, including biking, running, skiing and hockey.

I first noticed something was amiss with my health a year ago as I was getting ready to start a bike race. Urinating was difficult, but since this can happen with athletes, I blew it off and continued with my race. The problem went away.

Two months later while playing boot hockey with some friends, I noticed that my legs didn’t feel right. They became sore and sluggish, and my coordination wasn’t very good. But I continued to play through it.

The next week, I experienced difficulty urinating again. In great pain by evening, I drove to the Fairview Southdale Emergency Room to be catherized. At checkout, the doctor told me to schedule an appointment with an urologist. Because it was the week of Thanksgiving, and I didn’t have any more issues, I postponed doing so until the following week.

In the meantime, I went pheasant hunting that weekend and started having issues with my legs again—I felt like I couldn’t walk right and kept tripping in the tall grass. My coordination was off, and I developed horrible pain in my lower back. I was so uncomfortable that I slept downstairs all weekend so I wouldn’t disturb my wife.

A few days later, it happened again—I couldn’t urinate. I returned to the emergency room at Fairview Southdale Hospital, and explained that I also was having lower back pain and coordination issues. The doctors decided to admit me to the hospital overnight for observation. The next day, my legs became numb; I lost feeling in my feet and became paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors began testing me for possible conditions ranging from Lyme disease to Guillian-Barre syndrome to multiple sclerosis. They talked to me about several different potential diagnoses, most of which were difficult to grasp—some entailed permanent paralysis and some were even terminal.

That night was definitely my darkest hour. I felt the need to make peace with the world as my situation seemed so bleak. The doctors scheduled a spinal tap the next day to check for meningitis and a list of other diseases. I was scared, but my wife comforted me. My nurse explained the spinal tap procedure and gave me the support I needed throughout the long hours that night.
The following morning, several more tests were performed. I recall the radiologist talking about a conference he’d recently attended in California about Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM). He thought I was exhibiting classic symptoms of it, and sure enough, by that afternoon, I was diagnosed with an AVM in my spine. AVM is a very serious and rare neurological condition that occurs when there’s an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins. Typically, a person is born with this condition, but then doesn’t manifest until an accident or injury triggers the problem—I had had neither. Within an hour, I was wheeled away for a specialized angiogram. The doctors hoped that during the angiogram, they’d be able to sever the vein that was incorrectly attached to the artery. Unfortunately, however, the AVM was too severe.

A team of neurosurgeons was called in from the University of Minnesota Medical Center, to help with my case. They explained to me and my family the extensiveness of the four to six hour surgery that entailed disconnecting the artery and veins in the upper part of my spine, which might require removing spinal discs and putting in a rod. Thankfully, they were able to complete the surgery in about three hours, making only minimal cuts into my spinal discs to get at the vessels.

When I awoke from my surgery in the Intensive Care Unit, I had some feeling in my feet. Within a few hours, I could wiggle my toes and move my feet. The next day, I was able to stand and then walk around with a walker. I continued to progress over the next few days, much more quickly than doctors had anticipated—they were amazed, in fact! I went from, “I’m not going to be able to walk out of this place” to “I can almost jog home if I wanted to.” I still have some nerve damage, but am hopeful that it’ll all go away some day. Most importantly though, I’ve been able to participate again in all of the activities I love.

The staff at Fairview Southdale Hospital was so caring and supportive—they have the right relationships with the staff at University of Minnesota Medical Center, and will do whatever it takes to help patients. They brought in all the resources I needed to receive the best treatment and care—I’m so grateful.

Learn more about Neurosciences at Fairview Southdale Hospital.
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