When Sturdy Memorial Hospital's Dr. Do Chan performed a surgical procedure on his colleague's mother to repair a broken spine, he had no idea his own mother would require the same surgery just a few months later.
That colleague, Dr. Boris Shwartzman returned the favor, performing the same surgery - known as a balloon kyphoplasty - on Chan's mother.
The pair, who are pain management specialists and anesthesiologists, said selecting a doctor to provide the best care possible for their mothers was an easy decision.
"You aren't going to operate on your own mother, so it made sense," Chan said. "We really didn't think anything of it, until someone else mentioned it was unusual to have two doctors who had operated on each other's mothers."
A common mishap
Slava Schwartzman, 76, of Brighton, fractured her spine Oct. 12 after slipping and falling in a middle of the night trip to the bathroom for a glass of water.
"At first, I didn't feel anything was wrong. In the morning, there was something wrong with my back. I couldn't sit up and I was in terrible pain," she said.
Without any visible bruising on her side, Schwartzman - who spells her last name differently from her son - took some extra strength Tylenol, but later called her son when the pain got worse.
Dr. Shwartzman, 49, suspected his mother had fractured her spine.
"We see the vast majority of patients in this area, so we know when they describe their pain in a certain way that it's usually a spinal fracture," he said.
His mother was unconvinced at first.
"I said it cannot be. I didn't fall on my back and had no bruises - nothing," she said.
But, she went to the hospital for an MRI, which confirmed her son's diagnosis. The next day, she had the balloon kyphoplasty, which was performed by Chan, 39.
Balloon kyphoplasty is a minimally invasive surgery. It uses an orthopedic balloon that is inflated inside of the fractured bone to lift it and return it to the correct position. The doctor then fills the space created by the balloon with thick bone cement to stabilize the fracture.
Pain relief is almost immediate after the hour-long procedure.
"When fractured, the vertebrae have a swelling, or edema, that causes a lot of pain, Dr. Chan said. "After the procedure, patients usually find their pain improves by 70 percent, aside from the incisional pain. They are better within a few days and can resume normal activity within a week."
In a surprising twist, Chan's mother, Cindy, 61, of Westerly, R.I., also needed a balloon kyphoplasty just a few months later. She also suffered a spinal fracture, though it took much longer to diagnose.
One wrong move
Feb. 26 started as a typical morning for Cindy Chan. She went to the gym and was in the midst of a Zumba class when she took a bad fall.
"I was having fun in the front of the line and I turned and lost my balance and fell on my hip area. I tried to get up, but I couldn't. Someone tried to help me up, but it hurt so much I didn't want anyone to touch me," she said.
She took a trip to the emergency room and had a series of X-rays done, but no fractures showed up. She was told she might have pulled a muscle and was sent home with pain medication, but her son was concerned she might have fractured her spine.
Chan called his mother's primary care physician, suggesting an MRI might be needed because spinal fractures often are not detected on X-rays.
After almost two weeks of painful, sleepless nights, Chan's pain continued, so her doctor scheduled the MRI, which confirmed she had broken her spine.
Shwartzman stepped into perform the balloon kyphoplasty procedure on her.
Cindy Chan went home the following day, already feeling better.
Since the procedure, Cindy Chan has been back to the gym - though she has sworn off Zumba for the time being, sticking with the treadmill and elliptical machines.