Back on Her Feet: How Neurosurgical Spine Surgery Took One Pregnant Mother from Paraplegic to Walking Again

Back on Her Feet: How Neurosurgical Spine Surgery Took One Pregnant Mother from Paraplegic to Walking Again

When Rita Arena’s chronic back pain intensified early on in her pregnancy, she knew something was not right.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal — until the pain would not subside,” says Rita.

Rita was evaluated by a physiatrist, who believed she sprained the thoracic region of her back — the middle area below the cervical spine (neck) and above the lumbar spine (lower back) — and potentially a rib. At four months pregnant, she was advised to rest.

“My pain got progressively worse,” Rita continues. “Before I knew it, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t take care of myself, let alone my young son or husband.”

Desperate for help, Rita consulted a neurologist and underwent an MRI scan, with the go-ahead from her obstetrician-gynecologist.

“The following day, the neurologist called and told me there was a massive tumor either in or on my spine,” she says. “The realization quickly set in that there were no guarantees for me or my baby.”

Rita’s emergency case was referred to Dr. Jay Chun, a board-certified neurosurgeon at Atlantic NeuroSurgical Specialists (ANS) and spine specialist.

“It was clear this surgery could not wait, and I was confident we could take the necessary precautions to protect Rita and her unborn daughter,” says Dr. Chun.

Dr. Chun along with a multi-disciplinary team involving neuro-oncology, neuroradiology and neuropathology collaborated extensively. During surgery, Dr. Chun found a way to not only biopsy but remove the full tumor.

“We discovered Rita had an ependymoma, a rare tumor that begins in the spine or the brain. Ependymomas are difficult to extract because the tumor can be embedded in the spine,” explains Dr. Chun.

Only 1,340 people are diagnosed with ependymoma in the United States each year.

Just two days after surgery, Rita’s pain started to subside. Months later, Rita is back on her feet, walking again.

“It’s amazing that I don’t have back pain and that – with a support system of family, friends, faith and doctors – I’m finally ready to welcome the newest addition to our family,” she reflects.

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Atlantic NeuroSurgical Specialists (ANS) is New Jersey’s largest neurosurgical practice and one of the most advanced in the country. For more information, visit

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