Back on Her Feet: How Neurosurgical Spine Surgery Took One Pregnant Mother from Paraplegic to Walking Again

Rita Arena successfully underwent surgery —while expecting her second child — to remove a rare spinal cord tumor, allowing her to walk again.

Rita Arena thought she knew what to expect when she was expecting her second child. But when her chronic back pain intensified early on in her pregnancy, she knew something was not right.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal — until the pain would not subside,” says Rita.

Rita was evaluated by her primary care physician. Doctors performed various ultrasounds on her body, and while they could see her baby was healthy, the scans were inconclusive in identifying the root cause of her discomfort.

Rita was then examined by a physiatrist, who believed she had sprained the thoracic region of her back — the middle area below the cervical spine (neck) and above the lumbar spine (lower back) — and potentially sprained a rib. At four months pregnant, she was advised to rest and get help to care for her son.

“Despite the rest, my pain continued to get progressively worse,” Rita continues. “Before I knew it, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t take care of myself, let alone my young son or my husband.”

Desperate for help, Rita consulted a neurologist and moved forward with an MRI scan, with the go-ahead from her obstetrician-gynecologist.

“The day after, the neurologist called and told me there was a massive tumor either in or on my spine,” she says. “I have a young family. I have a baby inside me … and the realization quickly set in that there were no guarantees for either of us.”

Rita’s obstetrician-gynecologist referred the emergency case to Dr. Jay Chun, a board-certified neurosurgeon at Altair Health and spine specialist.

“I was confident we could take the necessary precautions to protect Rita and her unborn daughter as we tried to address the root of her pain and begin restoring her mobility,” says Dr. Chun, who has performed surgeries on pregnant patients in the past. “It was clear this surgery could not wait.”

Dr. Chun along with a multi-disciplinary team involving neuro-oncology, neuroradiology and neuropathology collaborated extensively to tackle Rita’s case.

Rita’s surgery lasted four and a half hours, during which time Dr. Chun found a way to not only biopsy but remove the full tumor.

“As suspected, we discovered Rita had an ependymoma, a rare tumor that begins in the spine or the brain. Ependymomas like Rita’s are difficult to extract because the tumor can be embedded in the spine,” explains Dr. Chun.

Recent data from the Collaborative Ependymoma Research Network Foundation and Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States reveals only 1,340 people are diagnosed with ependymoma in the United States each year.

Just two days after surgery, Rita’s pain started to subside. Months after surgery, her healing continues, but Rita is back on her feet and able to walk again.

“It’s amazing that I don’t have back pain, that I can play with my son and do so many things I missed out on for so many months. With a support system of family, friends, faith and doctors, I finally know I’ll be ready to welcome the newest addition to our family when she arrives,” she reflects.