Pueblo’s female spine docs use new robotic tech for complex surgeries

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Two Pueblo spinal surgeons are taking advantage of new robotic surgical equipment and offering a comforting, personal touch to help patients move past chronic pain that can haunt their daily lives.

Dr. Mimi Lundgren, a Pueblo native, returned home in May 2022, coming full circle to practice alongside Dr. Ken Danylchuk at Maple Leaf Spine and Orthopedics. Danylchuk was the very surgeon who patched her up with a metal rod after she broke her femur playing softball at age 15 when she was a student at Centennial High School.

“He changed everything for me. He explained it so well and I saw how cool orthopedics was,” Lundgren said.

Dr. Christina Koshak, another spinal surgeon who came to work in Pueblo three years ago, works alongside Lundgren and Danylchuk. She had a similar experience growing up in south Ontario, Canada.

“I tore my Achilles tendon playing volleyball and when I was told I needed surgery, I burst into tears. But I healed well enough to go on to play college volleyball and the doctor who treated me taught me how to scope knees 10 years later,” Koshak said of her full-circle story.

Since both women experienced the agony of sports injuries and the benefits of surgery, they knew what it was like, firsthand, to be patients and that helped mold them into the doctors they are today.

“We see patients with chronic back pain and leg pain and the level of dysfunction it has caused you just can’t appreciate, as it often comes with side effects like depression and anxiety. To be able to have a positive impact on their lives is truly rewarding,” Lungren said.

The long journey from patient to doctor

Lundgren found out early in life that she was good at math and science. She said she was “kicked out” of her eighth-grade math class and sent to East High School for a more challenging geometry class.

Later, her strong chemistry and biology education from Centennial prompted her to tell her school counselor, Carol Passig, that she wanted to be a surgical technician.

“She asked me, ‘Why not be the surgeon?’ and I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that,'” Lundgren recalled. “I think when it came to Pueblo, I was influenced by the people around me.”

Koshak said she fell in love with orthopedics and learning anatomy.

Both women went on to take nearly two decades of continuing education, which wrapped up with fellowships and residencies. In total, they logged 31 years of learning, from elementary school to residencies.

Lundgren started her education at the prestigious Notre Dame University and Koshak studied at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine in Ontario.

Koshak was drawn to orthopedics because she can treat patients from adolescents to those in their 90s who are experiencing everything from spinal tumors and infections to fractures. She soon learned that making a diagnosis is the easy part of the job.

“It is fun treating the problems with screws, rods, and plates and I fell in love with the delicate nature and complexity of surgery,” Koshak said.

How robotic technology helps surgeons

A highly precise $1 million-plus Mazor Robotic Guidance System at CommonSpirit St. Mary-Corwin Hospital is helping the women care for patients not only in Pueblo but throughout southern Colorado, from La Junta to the San Luis Valley.

The system helps the surgeons generate three-dimensional images of an individual patient’s anatomy that aid in planning the placement and angle of implants. Koshak and Lundgren did the first surgery using the equipment Jan. 17 and have done a total of five so far.

“It increases the complexity of some surgeries we can do in Pueblo,” Koshak explained, pointing out that patients don’t have to make the two-hour drive to Denver for treatment. “The robot helps us execute a plan — a steady drill guide where we make cuts in bones and place screws.”

“It allows us to focus on where to put screws exactly instead of basing it on an X-ray. The precision and ease makes surgery more efficient,” Lundgren said.

“The technology has been around for 15 years, but with this system, we have the newest software, so it is well-tested. It helps with accuracy, safety and efficiency, so it is decreasing the time that surgery takes and the other associated risks,” Koshak said.

Koshak said she already has five surgeries scheduled for February, so she estimates she and Lundgren will be using the equipment 12 to 15 times a month as it helps with “the most common operating procedure we do.”

‘You saved my life’: A patient’s perspective

Retired nurse Micki McBride, 70, is one of Lundgren’s patients who suffered a sciatic nerve impingement on her L-4 and L-5 vertebrae and had chronic pain that was getting progressively worse. The pain traveled all the way down her left leg and “it was inflamed and it was so awful I could only walk about 125 steps a day,” McBride said.

When she was referred to Lundgren, the doctor immediately told her she did not want to do surgery right away. So they first tried epidurals, but that did not give McBride lasting relief.

When she told Lundgren she was ready for surgery, she was scheduled for the major operation less than 10 days later. She couldn’t believe she didn’t have to wait three months.

“Dr. Mimi was exceptional at explaining everything to me and her bedside manner is beyond words — she is very compassionate, intelligent and down to earth,” McBride said.

Following surgery, during which Lundgren fused her spine with plates and screws, McBride said “the pain was immediately gone. When I went into her office for the post-op follow-up I started crying and told her, ‘I want you to know you saved my life.'”

“It’s very freeing — you can take on the world again and continue your passage through life. Chronic pain goes hand in hand with depression and I told her, ‘You don’t even know what this means to me — I can continue to help people and that’s my lifeline,'” McBride explained.

McBride said she feels like she developed a bond with Lundgren that she’s never had with a doctor before.

“She’s an earth angel,” McBride said.

Why the two doctors settled on Pueblo

Lundgren took her first job in Milwaukee to be closer to her family but said it didn’t feel like she fit in. It was Michael Cafasso, chief executive officer at St. Mary-Corwin, who encouraged her to find a place like Pueblo to practice her vocation, and that advice stuck in her mind.

“In Pueblo, it’s a bigger town with a small town feel. I’ve gotten close with my patients and take more ownership with the quality of care,” Lundgren said.

Koshak moved to Pueblo after meeting her future husband, Mark Koshak, a third-generation Pueblo steel mill worker who is the supervisor for the new long-rail mill project at Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel Mill known as the Palmer Project.

“Where I grew up in Canada, there were two steel mills in town and I am drawn to help the steelworkers, teachers and farmers, who oftentimes don’t get the best care because they live in a small community. The team we have working with us at St. Mary-Corwin are top notch — better than what I’ve seen in any other place ― they really accommodate the patient,” Koshak said.

More health news: Let’s talk business: St. Mary-Corwin offers free help for Pueblo breast cancer patients

Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business news. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or via X, formerly Twitter, at twitter.com/tracywumps. Support local news, subscribe to The Pueblo Chieftain at subscribe.chieftain.com.


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