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Waltzing Through Life: 79-Year-Old Milan Woman Dances Again

The foxtrot, tango, jitterbug and cha-cha: 79-year-old Kathleen Wheeler, Milan, IL, has ballroom danced throughout her life.

However, debilitating knee and back pain almost sidelined her for good.

“I have ballroom danced since I was in junior high,” says Kathleen. “My parents danced in the Big Band era. Every Wednesday night they’d dance, and I would dance, too, with my older cousins. I loved ballroom as well as tap, ballet, and leading the band as a majorette in high school.”

Yet, her life-long passion came to a halt after knee and severe back pain.

Steven Boardman, ORA Orthopedics
Steven Boardman, ORA Orthopedics

“I had been getting cortisone shots in my knee, and that worked for a while, but one day I got out of my van to get the mail and noticed I was suddenly falling.”

A trip to see knee surgeon, Dr. Steven Boardman, ORA Orthopedics, verified that it was time for a total knee replacement.

“Kathleen suffered from osteoarthritis, which is a normal arthritis for people at her age. It is characterized by the wear and tear of knee cartilage. This is a common diagnosis for people over 50,” he explains.

Dr. Boardman successfully performed a total knee replacement that got Kathleen back on the dance floor, but only for a while.

“Dr. Boardman was great and my knee felt fine, but I had also been living with back pain for years, and it just got worse,” recalls Kathleen.

She battled the pain until it became unbearable.

Dr. R. Scott Collins, ORA Orthopedics
Dr. R. Scott Collins, ORA Orthopedics

“The pain just begins to drain you. It tore me apart. I could barely tolerate it.”

ORA spine surgeon, Dr. Scott Collins, ordered an MRI that showed Kathleen suffered from a severe case of spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column), as well as degenerative scoliosis (deterioration that leads to the curving of the spine).

“He said to me, ‘I want you to see why your back hurts so much,’ and as I looked at the computer, my spine was really curved and it was pressing on my nerves. No wonder I had pain 24/7!” she recalls.

“Dr. Collins told me without surgery, I could eventually be in a wheelchair. The thought of no more dancing was unacceptable. The news was devastating. I told him I wanted to dance again.”

“Kathleen suffered horrible pain in her back and legs,” added Dr. Collins. “Her spinal canal was narrowed and pinching her nerves. Her spine was also severely curved. This type of scoliosis can happen with age, although not everyone suffers from it.”

Milan retired executive, Kathleen Wheeler, 79, waltzes again with QC dance instructor Günter Schlueter, after her successful back surgery and total knee replacement.
Milan retired executive, Kathleen Wheeler, 79, waltzes again with QC dance instructor Günter Schlueter, after her successful back surgery and total knee replacement.

Dr. Collins performed back surgery to straighten her curved spine and open up the spinal canal before fusing her vertebrae. “These procedures take the pressure off the spinal cord, and the fusion stops the curve from progressing.”

“I remember waking up after surgery and not feeling pain for the first time,” recalls Kathleen.

“They asked me if I had pain, and I said ‘Hooray, the pain is gone!’ Everyone in my room cheered.”

Eight months after her surgery, Kathleen danced for the first time.

“It felt great to move my body and legs again. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but it was wonderful to be out on the dance floor.

“I like the waltz. I can do the fox trot and tango, but my favorite is waltzing. It’s a beautiful dance and lovely to watch as well.

“All I can say is that my surgery was a miracle. I feel so blessed I chose and trusted my life to Dr. Collins. He’s a true professional and a skilled surgeon. I feel like I have my whole life back. It was a miracle for me.”