Our health experience: Neurosurgery at Beaumont saved us from a life of pain

Event rider Caroline Bjoerk and student Aoife O’Brien had their lives transformed by treatment at the hospital


Event rider Caroline Bjoerk remembers approaching a fence during a competition in Co Cork, and then the horse rolling on the ground on the far side. But she remembers nothing of the split seconds in between.

It was a dreaded “rotational” fall, in which a horse hits a solid obstacle and the rider is catapulted out of the saddle and over the fence, immediately followed by the somersaulting horse.

“I was lucky because he somehow bounced over the top of me; but in doing so, he kicked me in the back.” She was fortunate she “walked – well, hobbled – away from it”.

But it was the start of years of increasing back pain for the former Irish international rider as she struggled with the physical demands of running Dollanstown Stud in Co Kildare with her Swedish husband, Lars, who is also an event rider.

“I would have been riding seven, eight, nine horses a day,” she explains.

One morning she rolled over in bed to put the light on and heard a loud pop. A disc had ruptured. Although an injection into her back settled it for a while, soon she had difficulty even walking across the yard.

A physiotherapist, Joanne O’Hara, whom she was attending in Navan, Co Meath, mentioned Prof Ciaran Bolger, of Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, as the neurosurgeon she recommended to clients.

“It kind of stuck in my head,” says Bjoerk, who is 50. “A few months later, I bent down to pick something up and couldn’t stand straight.” This time the pain was down her right side, while previously it had been her left.

She had had enough. “I went to my GP and said I wanted to see Prof Bolger.”

On her initial appointment, he told her she had damaged a second disc quite recently. “He asked, ‘Which is the worst side, the right or the left?’ I had to make a decision.”

He operated first on the newer injury but she was still struggling with her left side. After more surgery, “the difference was unbelievable”, she says. “It was as if you had been in a car with binding brakes for five years and then you had got a mechanic to fix them.”

Banned from working in the yard, she took to walking and was covering 10km a day by her six-week check-up. Full of energy, and determined to raise awareness and much-needed funds for Beaumont, she did a sponsored walk across Ireland early last year. Unfortunately, a tumble from a support lorry during the walk proved more damaging than was apparent at the time.

“When I relaxed, wound down my walking and started riding again, I started to get a tremor down my arm,” she says.

One day, sitting into the car after a physio session, she went into a full-body spasm. An MRI at Beaumont showed a slipped disc in her neck, although that would not account for the severity of her symptoms.

During a 10-day stay in Beaumont, Bjoerk was getting such bad spasms she couldn’t breathe and turned blue. “They got the crash unit out for me twice.”

Various tests came back negative, except for the disc. It was concluded that her condition was due to a combination of stress and shock on the spinal cord. “My whole neuro system was on full alert,” she says.

She spent last summer recovering from this but her neck pain persisted. An injection into her C5C6 disc brought short-lived relief. Finally, Bolger carried out fusion surgery on December 22nd last.

“When I came out of surgery it was amazing,” she says. “All the neurological symptoms have gone completely.”

Warned she could run into serious problems again if she wasn’t careful, “I have started to figure out that my riding career is basically finished,” says Bjoerk, who knows her difficulties haven’t been easy for Lars or their children, 19-year-old Peter and 14-year-old Eric, either.

Although struggling with the prospect of the life changes that are needed, she is counting her blessings. “I can think of a lot of good friends killed in the same type of fall and it does make you realise how lucky you are.”

Darkest of days

Thirteen years and 10 spinal surgeries later, she has known the darkest of days. She was just about managing the pain until 2008, when she could no longer go into work as a sales manager with Bayer.

“It started to affect my legs and my bladder.” Despite several more surgeries, her condition deteriorated and she had two “dropped” feet.

She had to use a trolley to get around her house in Naas, Co Kildare, and a wheelchair outside. For about a year and a half she had a personal carer through the Irish Wheelchair Association.

“A carer came in at 9am every day to shower me; I had a home help through the HSE but I needed a lot of help. I was left with absolutely nowhere to go.” She couldn’t even hold herself up to sit in a chair.

“I thought that was my life. I just couldn’t cope; the pain was so horrific, and getting worse. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t leave the house; I had no quality of life. It was torturous.”

In desperation she went to see a private neurosurgeon in Dublin’s Hermitage Clinic. He said he couldn’t fix it and the only person who might be able to would be Bolger – if he was prepared to give it a go.

“Bear in mind, I had had five surgeries before I went to Prof Bolger. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to take on – but thank God he did,” she says. “When I hobbled in, in December 2012, he said, ‘If we don’t fix this, you are not going to have your legs’.

“The best-case scenario was a 40-50 per cent chance that he could save them through surgery. But there was no option; I couldn’t have stayed the way I was.”

Bolger operated but there were serious complications. “I had spinal fluid leaking from my brain. I was on the flat of my back in Beaumont for four months.”

It took five surgeries to sort the problem.

“I don’t know how he didn’t give up on me,” says O’Brien. “He was determined, and that is the only reason I have any sort of quality of life. I was more than ready to give up, but he wasn’t having it.”

She still has pain daily but it is nothing like it was. “I can walk and do everything in moderation. I am always going to have problems, but at least I have a life now. I can care for myself.”

She hopes to return to work eventually but, meanwhile, she is finishing an honours business degree.

Like Bjoerk, O’Brien wants to help Beaumont and both of them will be telling their stories at a “Celebrate Life” lunch to raise funds for neurosurgery equipment at Beaumont Hospital at the Westin Hotel, Dublin, on March 28th. See bhf.ie