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Doctor Terms Kitty Dukakis’ Spinal Surgery ‘Urgent’

June 2, 1988

BOSTON (AP) _ Kitty Dukakis will undergo surgery Friday morning to remove two herniated discs that are pressing on her spinal cord, an operation described by one of her doctors Thursday as ″not emergency but urgent.″

Dr. James R. Lehrich said that if left untreated, the condition could leave the wife of the Massachusetts governor paralyzed. However, he said it appeared to have been spotted early, and there was no sign of permanent damage.

″In view of the fact that this condition has quite definitely worsened in the past 24 to 48 hours, it was felt that waiting even until next week was taking a chance,″ he said at a news conference.

Lehrich, a neurologist, is a member of a team that confirmed her diagnosis at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she is scheduled to have the operation.

He said the damaged discs were first spotted by doctors at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, where Dukakis was campaigning for the California primary.

Lehrich said he considered the surgery, known as cervical laminectomy, ″not emergency but urgent.″

Mrs. Dukakis’ problems were caused by two herniated discs in her neck. These discs serve as soft cushions between the bony vertebrae that protect her spinal cord.

In her case, these discs have squeezed out of place so that they press on the spinal cord.

Lehrich said this could cause severe damage to the spinal cord resulting in permanent paralysis. ″Fortunately, she has come to us early before any damage is evident.″

At Boston University Medical Center, Dr. Ronald Mortara said most people with herniated discs are treated first with bed rest, traction and pain killers, and surgery is used only as a last resort.

However, he added, ″If someone has any evidence of spinal cord compression, that becomes much more serious and urgent.″

Lehrich said that discs can be damaged by injury or it can happen spontaneously.

He said the doctors are unsure what caused Mrs. Dukakis’ problems. ″We have seen no trauma, unless you consider that she has been a dancer and moved her neck a lot,″ he said.

Mrs. Dukakis, 53, has been a student and teacher of modern dance for three decades.

He said Mrs. Dukakis has suffered numbness and altered sensations in her hands and feet as a result of herniated discs. Although she noticed the problems several weeks ago, the symptoms have worsened in recent days.

Lehrich said the operation, which he described as major surgery, would take several hours. The surgical team will include Dr. Nicholas T. Zervas, the hospital’s chief of neurosurgery and a friend of the Dukakis family, as well as Drs. Lawrence Borges and Frederick Mansfield.

Lehrich said serious complications of the surgery are very rare, although they can include paralysis if the spinal cord is damaged.

During the operation, doctors will remove bone from her hip and use it to replace the damaged discs. Her recovery in the hospital was expected to take one or two weeks.

Doctors said that her problem, while not rare, is far less common than herniated discs in the lower back that do not press in the spinal cord.

Mrs. Dukakis entered Massachusetts General on Wednesday night after flying to Boston from Arizona.

Mrs. Dukakis disclosed last year that she had been addicted to amphetamines for 26 years until she entered a Minnesota clinic in 1982. She said she began taking the pills to curb her appetite and became addicted.

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