Dr. Michelle De Witt

When Pam Ward went in for spinal surgery in September 2023, she couldn’t take a step without a walker.

Four months later, she was riding roller coasters.

For this transformation, Ward thanks God, those who prayed for her — and her “hero,” neurosurgeon Dr. Michelle De Witt from Novant Health Brain & Spine Surgery - Kimel Park, in Winston-Salem.

A well-earned retirement

She was supposed to be enjoying retirement.

Ward, 66, had worked 30 years as a nurse in North Carolina and Virginia, a career she loved.

For the last five years, she had taught in a high school, helping students earn a certified nursing assistant (CNA) certificate and launch their own health care careers. She continually stressed the importance of consistency and excellence in the details.

From back pain to back at it.

Start here

“I always taught them that you’re going to go out there and see people take shortcuts, but that’s not good care,” Ward said. “Besides,” she quipped, “I'm getting older and I may open my eyes and see you standing over here as my caregiver.”

At 65, Ward retired — and got busier than ever with her 11 grandchildren, caring for her horse Diamond, and participating in Bible studies and a church group that makes quilts for people with medical or personal challenges.

Her schedule was so full she frequently joked, “I don’t know how I had time to work.”

But on May 5, 2023, her retirement became painful.

A little less joy…

For about eight years, Ward had experienced sciatic pain in her leg. Her doctor had prescribed pain medication, which “eased it a little bit, but never fixed it.” Chiropractic care was helping her manage her symptoms.

That is, until Ward attended a Christian women’s conference in Myrtle Beach.

“We were singing praises to the Lord, which I love to do, and I got a little bit bouncy, and suddenly pain started killing me,” Ward said. “It was terrible. I couldn't stand, I couldn't sit, I couldn't lay. It spiraled.” Ward was in pain for the whole three-day event, “Women of Joy.”

A culprit identified

Jordan Zendel

When she returned home to Rural Hall, Ward saw her primary provider, physician assistant Jordan Zendel of Novant Health Rural Hall Family Medicine.

“She pays attention to everything,” Ward said. “She looks at the whole person, with a holistic approach.”

Ward told Zendel that she felt sharp pain across her lower back, numbness and tingling in her left leg, and pain and weakness in her leg and foot that worsened when she was standing and walking.

Deana Smart

Zendel tried Ward on a few medications, and Ward completed physical therapy and continued chiropractic care, but it wasn’t helping. So Zendel referred Ward to Deana Smart at Novant Health Spine Specialists - Kimel Park, who used MRI to find the culprit: a herniated disc.

Here’s what that is: in between the vertebrae in your spine, you have discs that protect and cushion those bones as you move throughout your day. The discs are made up of a thick outer ring and a jelly-like substance inside that ring.

If the outer ring tears and some of that jelly leaks out, the disc has “herniated.” (Some people also call this a “slipped” disc, although that is not an official medical term.) Sometimes this herniation happens in one “wrong move,” such as lifting something too heavy, and in other cases, it happens gradually over time.

If the jelly leaks out on top of a nerve, like in Ward’s case, it can irritate or pinch the nerve, causing shooting pain, numbness, or weakness like Ward was experiencing.

Smart gave Ward two options: she could give her lower back injections for pain, or refer her for a spinal surgery.

But Ward was worried: “I had never heard a success story for spinal surgery for pain,” she said.

That’s a common concern among patients who aren’t familiar with advances in back surgery. She wasn’t ready to sign up for a surgical consult.

Meanwhile, her pain got worse. She couldn’t walk to the barn to visit Diamond (a friend stepped in and helped), and she was unable to stand during church. “Towards the end of July, I couldn't go anywhere without a walker. It changed my life totally.”

A doctor presses

Dr. Charles Craven

On top of it all, Ward had also started having hip pain. She went to see Dr. Charles Craven of Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine - Clemmons who diagnosed her with bursitis and gave her a steroid injection that “really helped” clear the inflammation that was causing her hip pain, Ward said.

Then, Craven challenged her: What are you going to do about that herniated disc?

“I told him I was scared to go to a surgeon,” Ward said. “Every person I've ever heard about having spinal surgery, they say it didn't work.”

Craven listened to her fears, and then told her about how surgery called microdiscectomy works. He also shared stories about people he knew who’d had great success with the procedure.

“Because he went over and above my hip problem to be interested in what else was wrong with me, I went back to Dr. Smart and said ‘I changed my mind,” she said. She was ready to talk with a surgeon.

A surgeon empathizes

Ward was referred to De Witt, a neurosurgeon who understood Ward’s fear and pain.

“It’s really frustrating for the patient, because one day they're going along and feel fine, and the next day they’re not living the same life. And yet they don't have an explanation,” De Witt said. “People are not generally excited about surgery. They're coming because they're in a lot of pain and they’re hoping that I have a solution.”

And De Witt did: a lumbar microdiscectomy.

In this procedure, the patient is put under general anesthesia and lies stomach-down on an operating table with a X-ray machine looped around their back. Then, using the X-rays to guide her, De Witt makes a small incision in the middle of the back and uses a specialized microscope — which magnifies and lights what she is seeing — to guide her to the location where the disc is herniated. She removes a small piece of bone, takes out the piece of the disc that is pushing on the nerve, then closes the skin, leaving a scar less than 3 inches long.

On Sept. 15, 2023, Ward went in for the procedure.

“Going into it, I was in so much pain. I was so depressed from having to give up my life. I couldn't stand, lay, sit,” Ward said. “I went into it like, ‘Let's just do this.’” ​

‘It doesn’t hurt!’

After her surgery, Ward stayed in the hospital overnight. A nurse friend stayed to help her. In the middle of the night, Ward needed to go to the bathroom. Her walker was there, but Ward was curious: could she walk without it?

With her friend's arm around her, Ward had her answer just a few tentative steps later: “I don't feel anything hurting me,” Ward said. “We walked about halfway down the hall, and I started laughing and said, ‘It doesn't hurt! It doesn't hurt!’”

De Witt said Ward’s response is typical. “It’s a very satisfying surgery to do because patients are usually better right away. They can already feel the effects.”

However, it’s still surgery, so some pain is to be expected.

“You will have some back pain, which is worst for the first 24 hours after surgery and is generally gone by the end of first week after surgery. Typically, people do take pain medication,” De Witt said, adding that for some patients, Tylenol is sufficient, while others may take a seven-day course of opioids under careful supervision.

Ward was discharged the next morning — after a visit from one of her former students, now working as a CNA at the hospital.

Ward marveled, “I came in literally in a wheelchair for my surgery — and I walked out.”

Back to life — and Disney World

De Witt’s post-surgical recommendations included lots of walking, no prolonged sitting, and no long drives for the two weeks following surgery. She also told Ward not to pick up anything heavier than 10 pounds, and not to bend or twist more than 90 degrees.


Ward used grabber tools to snatch things from high shelves and pick things up off the floor (“I had one in every room,” she said), a tool to put her socks and shoes on and a scrub brush to wash herself in the shower. She spent a lot of time sewing.

She continued this way until a follow-up appointment on Jan. 3, when De Witt told her she was ready to resume her normal activities.

And then Ward had a question: She was going to Disney World in three weeks. Could she ride the roller coasters?

“Honestly, no one's ever asked me this question before,” DeWitt said. “I told her that I couldn't tell her for sure, but she should be OK."

Four weeks later, De Witt had a MyChart message from Ward waiting for her: “I told her, ‘I rode every thrill ride Disney had to offer and your surgery was 100% successful,’” Ward said. “Dr. De Witt is my hero.”

Six months after surgery, Ward is completely back to her normal activities, and has enjoyed trips to New York City, Disney World, and a Women of Joy Cruise.

She’s back to chauffeuring her grandkids and is waiting for the weather to warm up so she can ride her horse.

“I choose Novant because I know that they stand for excellence,” Ward said. “And I want everyone involved at Novant— and God— to get the credit for what they do.”