The Road to Recovery: A Young Mother Finds Freedom From Back Pain

As a mother of two young children, a wife, and a registered nurse – you can’t sit still for long.

Erin Vogelheim, 33, of Rogers City, Michigan, is an active young mother. She spends most of her spare time outdoors with her husband, David, and children, Victor, 7, and Vayla, 4. Her summers are filled with camping, road trips, fishing, boating, and enjoying all that Michigan has to offer.

But Erin was suffering from debilitating back pain.

“The pain in my back caused so many limitations,” Erin recalls. “At one point, my three year old daughter had to help me get my shoes on. I knew it was time to get help.”

First seeking treatment at facilities in Lower Michigan, she went through therapy, spinal injections, and epidurals. But nothing was working. That’s when she started looking for a second opinion. A family friend recommended UPHS – Marquette Neurosurgeon, Dr. Craig Coccia.

“At first, I was reluctant because of the five-hour drive,” Erin said. “But I did my research. And when I met Dr. Coccia, I was impressed with his knowledge and the way he explained things. He was very calming. I knew I was in the right place.”

Dr. Coccia performed a discectomy on Erin in 2015. This provided relief, but she was still unable to fully enjoy her active lifestyle.

Two years passed. Erin’s lower vertebra were now bone on bone. She needed a spinal fusion.

“I had already developed such a great relationship with all the staff,” Erin said. “This time, I was able to take care of most of my pre-operative needs over the phone and with my family doctor here in Lower Michigan.”

Erin had a spinal fusion in March of 2018. The procedure is called Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion, or ALIF. It is essentially a “welding” process. The idea is to fuse together the painful vertebrae so they heal into a single, solid bone. The incision is made through the abdomen, which allows more direct access to the vertebra and has been shown to result in faster recovery times.

“After my surgery, I felt immediate relief from the pain,” she recalls. “By the time I was discharged, I was a completely different person. It was more than just freedom from the back pain. My mind was clear. I had forgotten what it was like to live without the constant pain.”

Just six weeks later, Erin’s back to enjoying time with her kids, doing things she never thought she’d be able to do again.

“As a nurse, I have high expectations,” Erin said. “But every single person I encountered at UPHS exceeded them.”

She developed a special bond with Brain & Spine staff Joy, Neurosurgery Patient Liaison, and Linda, Neurosurgical Coordinator. “These two were my angels,” she continued. “They were there for me every single step of the way. They guided me through a very difficult time in my life. Today I consider them friends.”

Erin continues to get stronger and has already seen a significant improvement in her quality of life.

“I still need to take things slow while I recover,” she explains. “But I’m back to an active lifestyle with my family. I can play in the yard with my kids and go on walks – I’m a whole person again.”

“It’s difficult for me to put into words what Dr. Coccia, the nurses, and the staff have done for me and my family,” she continues. “These people are my guardian angels.”

For more information about Spine Care at UPHS – Marquette, visit our website at or call 906.225.4840.

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