Patient Conquers Back Pain and Turns Life Around

At 56, Suzette Califano is probably healthier than she has ever been in her life. She works out three days a week at Good Shepherd’s fitness center, Optimal Fitness, bicycles up to 30 miles at a time and runs a mobile pet grooming business, working on her feet for hours a day.

But only two years ago, none of this was possible. At 276 pounds and suffering from constant back pain, Suzette needed a walker for mobility. She couldn’t walk or stand for more than a few minutes at a time. She was even in pain at rest while sitting or lying down.

A few years earlier she had surgery to remove a cyst from her spine, but doctors recommended further surgery to alleviate her back pain and improve her mobility. Suzette suffered from a host of spinal conditions: spondylolisthesis, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, arthritis and several cracks in her vertebrae.

Her doctors also advised her to lose weight before having surgery. In 2013, Suzette decided it was time to make a change. She had bariatric surgery (a sleeve gastrectomy), began eating a healthier diet and lost more than 120 pounds in about six months. “I had to completely change my mindset, habits, lifestyle and food choices – not for a couple of months or a year, but for the rest of my life,” she says.

She was ready for a spinal fusion. A surgeon removed her damaged discs and replaced them with spacers and bars to stabilize her spine.

Six weeks after surgery, she began aquatherapy at Good Shepherd in Allentown, where she had great success after her first back surgery. “Water therapy was so helpful and soothing, almost like ‘chicken soup’ for your body,” says Suzette.

“The warm water therapy pool promotes recovery from back or joint surgeries and injuries, because it helps to improve strength and flexibility while reducing pain through decreased weight-bearing and reduced stress on the spine and joints,” says Barrie Jo Wambold, PT, DPT, MTC, ATRIC, a Good Shepherd physical therapist who specializes in aquatherapy.

Suzette moved on to regular therapy after about 10 weeks, where therapists worked closely with her to build her core strength and give her an excellent cardiovascular workout without compromising her back.
She also transitioned from using a stationary bicycle to a seven-speed cruiser and started riding the Rails to Trails paths, averaging 15 miles on her treks.

“The Good Shepherd therapists listened to me and worked with me towards a lifetime goal, not just a discharge goal,” says Suzette.

After discharge from therapy, Suzette continued exercising at Optimal Fitness, working with her physical therapists and the fitness center’s exercise physiologist to develop a routine that keeps her flexible and pain-free. She follows each workout with water walking in the therapy pool. “I tried conventional pools, but the cold water tightened my muscles and resulted in pain,” she says. 

Suzette has lost an additional 20 pounds since her spinal fusion surgery.

She also decided to pursue a lifetime passion of working with animals and obtained a certificate in pet grooming to start her own mobile pet grooming business.

“Good Shepherd played an important role in helping me focus on my abilities and to create an active lifestyle that suits me,” says Suzette. “Now I can stand for eight hours straight, walk miles at a time, sit an entire evening and sleep in any position – all without pain. The possibilities for me are almost endless. Thank you, Good Shepherd!”

For more information on Good Shepherd's back pain program or aquatic therapy, call 1-888-44-REHAB (73422) or contact us