MONROE, Ga. - Mary Ann Rivers is sitting up straight, looking her husband Jim in the eye, after years of being stuck, staring down at the ground. The Monroe, Georgia 68-year old jokes she spent years staring at people's shoes.
"People would come and bend over to look at my face, which was kind of embarrassing, too."
In her driver's license photo, Rivers is so stooped, it's hard for her to look at the camera.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. With chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation, she beat the cancer, but the radiation weakened the bones and muscles holding up her neck.
"It just happened so quickly," Rivers says. "Everything with my cancer treatment had been so successful."
Piedmont Physicians Athens Neurosurgeon Dr. Shashikant Patil says they call this a chin-on-chest deformity. In this x-ray, Rivers strains to lift her head back. She can't.
"And that is the least of her problem," Dr. Patil says. "The main problem is not being able to swallow and not being able to breathe. She was having sensations of getting choked and gasping for air."
Patil feared if he didn't do something, Rivers was looking at the end of her life.
But correcting the problem was complicated because Rivers also has Parkinson's Disease, a movement disorder that can make it harder for her spine to heal after surgery.
"The most important thing is we can get a lot of people through the surgery, but the follow-up and the healing down the line is extremely important," he says.
Patil felt Rivers was a good candidate because she was so committed to the recovery process.
"When he told me he could operate on me, I cried," Rivers says, choking up. "He was kind of like my salvation."
The spinal reconstruction surgery was long, about 9 hours. First, Dr. Patil released the muscles pulling Rivers' head downward. Then he went in through the front and the back, removing calcifications and using expanders, bone grafts and rods and screws to straighten her spine, fusing 11 vertebrae.
"But the important thing is I did not fuse her head to her spine, so she is still will have a good range of motion," Patil says.
Three months out, back home in Monroe, Rivers is walking with a walker, wearing a brace.
Her neck is straight again.
"She has done remarkable," Dr. Patil says. "I'm gonna make it," Mary Ann Rivers smiles. "I'm kind of a fighter."