Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm
For too long, Margaret Henningsen, vice president and co-founder of Legacy Bank in Milwaukee, needed spinal surgery, but it just did not fit into her schedule. Last year, she decided to trade in her fear of surgery for a chance to alleviate her pain.
Henningsen, who will turn 60 next year, has suffered from spinal arthritis since she was in her 20s. Henningsen has degenerative arthritis that started in her feet and knee joints. She underwent surgery on both of her feet at the same time in 1994, replacing the two major bones in each foot with stainless steel tubes.
“It was so painful,” Henningsen said. “I could not walk for six weeks.”
Henningsen decided to have both feet operated on at once because she thought it would be the only surgery she needed, and she wanted to get it over with.
“I am terrified of surgery,” Henningsen said.
However, the spinal cord was next.
From 1994 to the end of 2005, Henningsen had extreme pain in her lower spine. She went to five different doctors, hoping they would have a different diagnosis, but all said it was degenerative arthritis and all said she needed spinal fusion surgery.
“By 2003, it had accelerated to the point that I was in a 10-plus pain level every day,” Henningsen said.
People suffering from chronic pain usually have three options: they can have surgery, they can take medication or try to manage the pain. Driven by her fear of surgery, Henningsen decided to try to learn how to manage her pain.
“I got progressively worse,” Henningsen said. “By the beginning of 2005, I started to feel a pinch in my spinal cord. Some days, the pain was unbearable. I decided to keep moving and to keep going. I don’t think I am alone in that. People with chronic pain think that some kind of miracle will happen.”
Part of the pain Henningsen was experiencing was due to the deterioration of soft tissue around her vertebrae. The arthritis was causing her lower spine to curve outward.
Henningsen developed a noticeable limp, and employees and customers were starting to ask her if she was all right.
She often lost feeling in her left arm and leg, and she lost her balance and fell down several times.
In December 2005, Henningsen was forced to take action. One night when she pulled into her garage, she was in so much pain that she had to call her husband on her cell phone to help her out of the car.
Henningsen is married to Paul Henningsen, a former Milwaukee alderman who is currently a real estate agent for Ogden & Co. in Milwaukee.
“I did not have much time to plan,” Margaret said. “The decision took years to make, but when it was made, it was a split-second decision. I was in so much pain that I could barely get out of my chair.”
Henningsen underwent a seven-hour surgery at the Orthopedic Hospital in Glendale, where doctors scraped bone from her pelvis to fuse onto her spine and inserted a stainless steel brace.
“It looks like the top of a guitar,” Henningsen said. “The brace is screwed into my spine to keep it straight.”
She was out of the hospital in five days and had to recover at home by lying flat on her back and wearing a plastic brace around her abdomen.
“I did follow the doctor’s orders. I walked every day, and my husband provided me with excellent care,” Henningsen said. “We were focused on me healing so that I could get back to work.”
Henningsen was out of work for close to four months.
“Even though things flowed very smoothly, it was sort of difficult to get back into the swing of things,” Henningsen said. “The employees (at Legacy Bank) did a marvelous job going to meetings for me, teaching classes and dealing with customers.”
The entire healing process takes one year, but for the rest of her life, she will have to adjust her activities and limit her level of stress, she said.
“Part of the reason I was putting it off was because I knew I would be gone for a long time and I would hate for people who are already busy to take on additional tasks,” she said.
The management team at Legacy Bank was ready to take on the challenge, though and Henningsen was able to provide some direction from home.
Now, nearly one year later, Henningsen lives a relatively pain-free life, aside from occasional aches and stiffness, she said. She is enjoying the regained mobility and has learned her lesson in health management.
“I learned to be more proactive about my health,” Henningsen said. “It is important for any executive or business owner to be proactive, because what happens to you affects your business.”