Slipping Under the Radar: A UHC doctor repairs lives with a new surgery

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BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Ten years of debilitating pain transformed Laurie Kimmel from high-performance athlete to bedridden. She was a mother of two, a triathlete, and in the blink of an eye, she could barely lace up her shoes.

“I literally could not breath for almost two years. Every time I took a breath, the pain went from bad to intractable, unbearable,” she remembered. ““I went from being one of the most active people to barely being able to move or breathe.”

For Laurie, before the doctors and wrong diagnoses there was competitive stair climbing, soccer games and sparring.

“I was 43 and I had given myself until I was 45 to get my black belt.” 

Laurie Kimmel

All it took was one sparring match, one regrettably and unfortunately placed knee to her back and her life changed forever.

“It never occurred to me that there’d be a day that I wasn’t lacing up my shoes in 20 below windchill weather and going through this split second, my life changed.”

Laurie had a broken rib and a subdural effusion in her lung, but the pain never went away even after it healed. Perhaps even more unbearable than the ever-constant pain, however — she had no diagnosis and no answers. Laurie, who lives in Chicago, had access to some of the best medical professionals in the world, but no one seemed to be able to figure it out. Lyme Disease, Lymphoma, Leukemia . . . the tests kept coming, but answers materialized.

“No one was listening to me,” she said. “I kept pointing to where my pain was and explaining what my pain was and it was like “oh your back, your intestines…” 

Laurie’s ribs began to slip out of position and her pain slipped under the radar, until she found her own answers. After years of research, Laurie diagnosed herself . Sifting through what few articles were available online, she found something on Slipping, or Slipped Rib Syndrome (SRS). She called that her “eureka moment.”

Slipping Rib Syndrome is defined as “a painful disorder caused when one or more of the 8th-10th false ribs become abnormally mobile.”

Within days, Laurie underwent surgery at Northwestern in Chicago.

“It saved my life. It probably gave me a 50% pain reduction,” she said. ““It never took away the pain that went all the way into my back.” 

So Laurie set out for answers again, this time stumbling upon a podcast which featured United Hospital Center thoracic surgeon Dr. Adam Hansen. He developed a new surgical technique which aims to repair the slipped ribs, instead of remove them. The usual technique is a costal cartilage excision, which removes cartilage and rib portions .

“A lot of the surgery we do these days is really removing something that’s bad. I’d like to get the thought process away from that, because cartilage is not bad. It’s not wrong, it’s not diseased. It just needs to be put back to where it is supposed to be.” 

Dr. Hansen explains how his surgery is performed.

He says it is not surprising Laurie self-diagnosed. SRS is not often taught in medical school, and because it involves cartilage it goes undetected by tests like MRI’s and CAT scans.

“It’s a hidden diagnosis. You know, we’ve known about it since easily the 1920’s. If you look back at a couple of original papers on it, there was a doctor that was treating it in 1920,” Hansen explained. “He’s the one who invented the excision. I don’t know what made it fall off the radar, but now that I know about it … I see this all the time.”

Laurie says she never knew the answer she needed all along was hiding in the hills of West Virginia. “Dr. Hansen spoke to my thoracic surgeon here because I felt like … who’s this guy in West Virginia, right? They had a great conversation.”

Dr. Hansen performed her surgery in March of 2020.

“She was the very first patient I saw after a costal cartilage excision. […] [The ribs] are just clicking and their ribs are jamming up together or feel really far apart.” 

Dr. Hansen had to customize Laurie’s surgery, since she was already missing portions of her ribs. He says he’d just like to share the information he’s found during his time at WVU Medicine with doctors around the world.

“Really, it’s just this Kevlar, it looks like a shoe string, and it’s really strong stuff. You could hang from the ceiling from it,” he laughed. But for patients like Laurie, that shoe string is just enough to help them lace up their own again.

“I won’t be able to run another marathon. I know that that is not realistic for me. But I’d like to walk another marathon. I’d like to be able to do that.” 

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