Patient Paul Palma (right) and Dr. Maloney (left) reconnecting after his spine surgery.

Grad Walks, Thanks to Doc

When his family returned to the Philippines in 2020, Paul Palma decided to stay with his aunts in Fairfield, so he could graduate from Rodriguez High School. But back pain that started in November 2021 suddenly threw into question whether the teen would even be able to walk with his graduating class in 2022.

At first, his aunts thought he wasn’t getting enough exercise. He’d been an active kid in the Philippines, but during the pandemic, he was house-bound. Exercise only made it worse.

“He started to lose control of his balance, and would sometimes fall,” recalled his Aunt Michelle Palma, a lab scientist at NorthBay Health. She took him to a local clinic for care, but nothing improved.

By January, his left leg became numb and he walked with a limp.

“I kept thinking it was no big deal and it would go away,” he recalled. “In my family, I’m the one who rarely gets sick. I thought I just tried to do too much, too soon.”

But a visit to NorthBay Health’s Emergency Department on Feb. 2 proved otherwise.

An MRI revealed a thoracic spinal cord tumor and led to surgery a few days later with neurosurgeon Patrick Maloney, M.D., who specializes in complex spine surgery. Dr. Maloney earned his degree from the Yale School of Medicine and completed his residency at Mayo Clinic. He served in the Air Force and was a neurosurgeon at Travis Air Force Base before joining NorthBay Health in 2017 and becoming chief of neurosurgery in 2021.

“Schwannomas in young patients are rare,” said Dr. Maloney. “They’re usually developed in adults age 50-plus.”

Dr. Maloney pointing out the 2- to 3-centimeter tumor on Palma's MRI.Paul had a 2- to 3-centimeter tumor between the lumbar spine and the thoracic spine.

“It was taking up so much room within the spinal canal, it was causing a lot of compression on the spinal cord, resulting in weakness and inability to walk,” explained Dr. Maloney. “If not removed, it could have started to affect his right side and make it difficult to stand or walk.”

Paul’s Aunt Loida de Vera, program coordinator for NorthBay’s Joint Replacement Program, knew the surgery was necessary, but admitted it was worrisome, with Paul’s family back in the Philippines. She and Michelle were calling the family constantly.

“It was so nice that Dr. Maloney used Facetime to talk with Paul’s dad to answer his questions,” said Loida.

“I find it is essential to speak with as many family members as possible, especially for large cases that are higher risk,” said Dr. Maloney. “We used Facetime and similar programs quite a bit during the pandemic, and they have become part of our practice today. They allow us to be more nimble with our patients, who are less mobile or want to involve others in the surgical decision-making.”

Another physician, Anit Patel, M.D., also helped with communications, translating the complex medical information.

Fortunately for Paul, the tumor turned out to be benign. Dr. Maloney and his surgical team were able to remove it completely, and Paul’s prognosis is good.

“We will follow your spine with imaging over the next several years, and hopefully no further treatment will be needed,” Dr. Maloney told Paul.

After a 10-day stay in the hospital, Paul was up and doing physical therapy.

Patient Paul Palma and his family at his high school graduation.Thanks to Dr. Maloney and the surgical team, not only could the teen walk normally again, he was able to literally walk in his high school graduation on June 10.

“Dr. Maloney told me that I’ll recover some of my abilities eventually, but if I do outpatient physical therapy, it will happen a little quicker. That I should be able to run again, some day.”

From Dr. Maloney’s perspective, Paul’s recovery was remarkable. “It’s a credit to his young age and rehab work,” he said. “He does not need a brace, since we placed instrumentation at the time of surgery. He needed to refrain from heavy lifting, twisting and bending for about six weeks. Now he is completely free to regain normal activities.”

Loida said she and her family are thankful that all their concerns were heard, and that Paul was able to get the MRI right away, and then the surgery.

“The support during and after his surgery has been tremendous,” she said. “It really felt like family, they were right beside us the whole way. The nurses were amazing. They knew he missed home and brought him Filipino delicacies. They’re still checking in on him.”

Paul’s Aunt Michelle Palma agreed. “The medical team and allied services did an extraordinary job throughout his medical condition. We can never thank enough all the people who helped.”

Dr. Maloney is also grateful.

“Honestly, this is what it’s all about,” he said, “helping people get back to their full lives. It’s wonderful to be part of a patient’s journey of recovery from illness/disease. I am extremely grateful and lucky to have a skill set that allows me to help people.”

To make an appointment with NorthBay Health Neuroscience & Spine, ask your primary physician for a referral.