How two doctors restored my quality of life

To: Dr. Lewis and Dr. Waghmarae

From: John Carubba (As told to Lauren Brill)

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Dear Dr. Lewis and Dr. Waghmarae,

When I was a little boy, my life was normal. I loved playing sports, including football, hockey, and baseball. To this day, I remember playing third base as a child. I wasn’t the greatest player or fielder, but I snared it on the backhand going down the third baseline, and made a jump throw mid-air. On one hop, I got it to the first baseman. The runner happened to beat it out by half a step, but the whole crowd erupted because it was such a great play – even the umpire commented. It made me feel really good. I wanted to get better and better so I could play on my high school baseball team one day.

But that never happened.

When I was 13 years old, my mother, sister, and I were on our way back from church. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we were dropping my sister off at her friend’s house. My mom went to make a left turn. I was sitting in the front passenger’s seat when my head suddenly smashed against the window. A car crashed into us. From there, it became very chaotic. Our car ended up on a  lawn near a tree, and I was scared, shocked, and completely frozen. I had no idea what just happened and certainly had no idea what was to come.

I had no idea what just happened and I certainly had no idea what was to come.

At first, I could still move around, but a few weeks after the accident, I began feeling intense pain in my lower back and my legs. It kept getting worse and worse. An MRI revealed that several discs in my back were damaged, causing nerve pain. It became more and more debilitating. One day I was in severe pain, and I fell over. That’s when I started using a wheelchair. That’s when the reality of the situation began to sink in, and I started crying uncontrollably. A thousand thoughts were going through my head. I could not participate in gym or sports. 

What would my life be like? How would I move forward?”

 It felt like a knife going through my heart.

I was angry and devastated but tried to balance that with understanding that I was lucky to be alive. Ultimately, I got taken out of school because sitting for long periods led to more pain, and I couldn’t concentrate.

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Doctors put me on a ton of pain medicine, but nobody would do anything. Nobody would perform surgery. Some didn’t believe my pain was real, and others didn’t want to operate on someone so young. Miserable and embarrassed, I didn’t socialize at all. I didn’t want to be seen in my condition by anyone – not in person or photos. I spent a lot of time alone and isolated from other kids. Instead, I watched a lot of sports. My teams are the Bills, Sabres, Yankees, and Nets. Watching games is one of the few activities that made me happy. Sports and its announcers made me smile.

Since playing baseball in high school no longer seemed to be a realistic goal, my new dream was to be a sports announcer. But even that had its challenges. I would try to practice on tape recorders, but it was hard for me to speak without slurring my words because of my pain and medication.

The frustration led to a lot of very low moments. But in the back of my mind, I always had hope that I was one doctor away from getting better. So, I kept trying. I probably visited about 70 doctors across Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, and Cleveland. None of them would or could help me. Then at 19 years old, I went to you, Dr. Waghmarae. You are a pain management doctor. We had met once before while I was under the care of another doctor. You were shocked no one had effectively helped me yet. You took me and my pain seriously and referred me to Dr. Lewis, an orthopedic surgeon in Orchard Park, New York.

Dr. Lewis, I waited what felt like five or six hours to see you. But it was worth the wait. You gave me two different options for treatment, personally recommending a surgery where you’d put rods and screws in my lower back. Just the thought of getting real help was exciting. In my head, I was jumping up and down and doing cartwheels. Within a month or two, you performed that surgery on me, which changed my entire life. Just days following the operation, I could walk again. Seven years in a wheelchair, and I could finally walk again because of you. When you saw me walk during physical therapy, the nurse told me you had a big smile across your face. Dr. Lewis, I know you cared about me as a person, and it gave you great pride and joy to help me feel better.  

Dr. Lewis and Dr. Waghmarae, you two were the miracle I was hoping for for seven years.

It’s been a decade since that surgery – since I left that wheelchair. I want you both to know that I no longer need to take 30 different pills a day to manage the pain. While sometimes I walk with a cane, there are times I can go without one. Unlike in my teens, I can drive and shower on my own. No longer do I feel confined to my bed or my home, as I am able and excited to go out and meet people . 

And while I may never get to make a big play in a high school baseball game like I dreamt I would as a child, I do get to be part of the moment when someone else does. For the last few years, I have worked as a play-by-play announcer for WNY Athletics, covering high school sports. I absolutely love it.

I am so glad I never gave up hope, and ultimately, I found both of you.

While I may never get to run the bases, it is because of both of you that I can enjoy my life again.

Thank you,

John Carubba
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