After a stress fracture in 2017, Cathy Hixson started on a long, frustrating orthopaedic journey.

News | one month ago

After 17 Grueling Surgeries, A Unique Procedure Solved Cathy’s Leg Problems

After a stress fracture in 2017, Cathy Hixson started on a long, frustrating orthopaedic journey. But thanks to a unique surgery at Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute, Cathy is on the mend — and her story shows us how Atrium Health is safely resuming elective surgeries in the wake of COVID-19.

Cathy Hixson of Charleston, S.C. is no stranger to orthopaedic surgery. Her journey started during Thanksgiving 2017 when she began experiencing pain in her leg and difficulty walking. She met with her primary care physician, who diagnosed her with a stress fracture in her left tibia due to a deformity on both sides of her legs.

Fast forward to March of 2020 and Cathy had been through 17 surgeries — but none of the specialists Cathy met with in Charleston were able to fix her orthopaedic issues. Naturally Cathy and her husband Darrell were growing frustrated. But after discussing Cathy’s journey with a coworker, Darrell soon learned about Joseph Hsu, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute (MSKI).

After meeting with Cathy, Dr. Hsu was adamant he could fix her legs using techniques he helped refine during his many years serving as a military orthopaedic surgeon. Dr. Hsu would perform a deformity correction/nonunion surgery, which corrects limb pain and instability that’s the result of improper bone healing. Better yet, he said he could do the surgery at Atrium Health One Day Surgery, a facility specializing in quick turnaround surgeries.

But like much of Cathy’s orthopaedic journey, it wouldn’t be simple. After all, her first of two surgeries with Dr. Hsu was scheduled for March 9 — just a few days before MKSI would have to pause elective surgeries in the wake of COVID-19. Cathy’s eventual return to normalcy is a testament to MSKI’s innovative approach to surgery and the department’s efforts to resume elective surgeries safely during the pandemic.

“I often get called when all other options fail”

Cathy and Darrell had heard it all when it comes to orthopedic surgery. But when they met with Dr. Hsu, they were struck by just how confident he was.

“When I asked Dr. Hsu why he was so confident he could help my wife, he replied, ‘I often get called when all the other options fail.’” says Darrell. “It wasn’t like he was boasting, he was simply confident that he could help.”

“Oftentimes patients have had a lot of surgeries before they get to me,” explains Dr. Hsu. “My goal is to provide treatment that aligns with Atrium Health’s core philosophy of patient-centered care. This means decreasing convalescent time, carefully controlling the pain and getting patients in and out of the hospital as efficiently as possible.”

Dr. Hsu has found that patients prefer this streamlined process, as it enables them to recover in the comfort of their own home, with family by their side.

“Dr. Hsu is able to provide highly specialized orthopedic care in a setting where traditional care and procedures have failed patients,” says Andrea Gail, RN, his primary nurse. “He draws on his extensive experience working with our injured [military] service men and women and applies this knowledge to all patients.”

Dr. Hsu hoped that after these surgeries Cathy would be able to put full weight on the leg and recover at home in an outpatient setting. This was especially important as the Hixsons lived three and a half hours from Dr. Hsu’s office and wouldn’t be able to get to the hospital regularly.

On March 9, the Hixsons came to Charlotte and the surgery went as planned for Cathy’s left leg. It healed quickly and they were ready to start on the right leg’s surgery — but that surgery happened to be scheduled during COVID-19’s peak when elective surgeries were restricted. This meant Cathy would have to wait until May 13 for the other surgery.

“I was disappointed, but we understood that we had to wait until the situation was safe,” says Cathy.

Not missing a beat during COVID-19

Fortunately, Atrium Health is leading the national standard for COVID-Safe care. Across all locations, Atrium Health has instituted safety protocols to ensure patients feel confident and comfortable each time they visit. These protocols include screening patients for coronavirus before their visits, extensive disinfectant protocols, personal protective equipment (PPE) for all patients and staff, separation of coronavirus and non-coronavirus patients, and virtual visits.

“We did a video chat with my care team and had a great experience,” says Cathy. “We love it because you have a set time and we know that we will be seen at that time. It’s better time management from our standpoint but certainly the follow-ups were great and since then, Darrell has had a virtual visit with his primary care physician.”

Cathy and Darrell appreciated how they could show Dr. Hsu pictures of Cathy’s X-rays during these virtual visits, as well as show the surgeon how her incisions were healing. The experience was user-friendly, helpful for Dr. Hsu, and certainly convenient considering the Hixsons’ distance from MSKI.

A gradual return to normalcy

Cathy’s second surgery, this time on her right leg, was one of the first surgeries completed after  MSKI’s reentry into elective surgery. And once again, Cathy’s surgery was successful, getting her in and out of the hospital in a day. Her scarring continues to heal and while there is still some numbness, Cathy’s physical therapy is putting her on the path back to a normal, pain-free life.

“We can’t say enough praise for Dr. Hsu and his staff,” says Cathy. “My experience with these surgeries has been totally different, totally easier from the previous ones.” Cathy also believes that educating herself on these procedures, asking the right questions, and carefully listening to doctor’s responses was key to her successful care.

“One of the real highlights of Ms. Hixson’s experience is that I think it really shows we have a good system in place to do elective surgeries in a COVID-Safe environment,” says Dr. Hsu. “What helped our system is how aggressive and disciplined we were in terms of postponing surgery, preserving PPE, getting new PPE, and ramping up testing capabilities quickly.”

That early response to COVID-19 and an ongoing commitment to a safe clinical environment has paid off for Atrium Health. And it’s helping more and more patients like Cathy get the life-changing surgeries they need.


Whether you’re from out of state or out of the country, Atrium Health’s Global Healthcare Services offer a full range of award-winning medical services and specialties. Learn more about the orthopaedic care at the Musculoskeletal Institute here.