Running outside

As a bereavement coordinator at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Lori Malazich’s compassionate heart and inner strength are key to her work with families and children who receive palliative and hospice care.

But her work is often emotionally draining and stressful. To maintain a good work-life balance, Lori pursues her passion for hiking, high-intensity interval training, weightlifting, and endurance running.

“I find that the more stress I have in my life, the more physical I become,” says Lori, 49. She runs for fun on local courses such as the Rachel Carson Trail and competitively in events like the TransRockies Run.

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Sidelined by an Injury

In February 2020, Lori’s run came to a sudden stop when she fell into a snow-covered pothole. The unexpected fall didn’t slow her down — at first. “Even the next day, I did a fantastic 10-mile run and was pretty swift on my feet,” says Lori.

Photo Credit: Tom Rekowski

But when a month of chiropractic care didn’t ease her discomfort, Lori contacted Melissa McLane, DO, a UPMC primary care sports medicine physician. “Dr. McLane and I go way back,” says Lori. “When you’re into endurance running like I am, you’re always having some aches and pains.”

When x-rays showed nothing wrong, Dr. McLane recommended physical therapy at UPMC Centers for Rehab Services at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. But after multiple sessions, the heaviness in Lori’s lower back persisted.

“Severe pain was just radiating through my lower back,” she explains. “I never had back problems like this before.”

Because of COVID-19, Lori was hesitant to go to a hospital emergency department. Instead, she again contacted Dr. McLane, who ordered an MRI. Lori finally had a diagnosis: a central disc bulge, a tear between her two lowest vertebrae, displacement of the descending right nerve, and a paracentral disc protrusion.

Photo Credit: Elmer Ferro

Dr. McLane recommended a cortisone injection, but when the pandemic caused scheduling delays, Lori reached out to Matt El-Kadi, MD, PhD of Tri-State Neurosurgical Associates UPMC for a second opinion. “I wanted another option so if the injection didn’t work, I would have a foot in the door somewhere. I’m proactive about my health,” says Lori.

After a CT scan, Dr. El-Kadi did not recommend surgery. Instead, he referred Lori to Edward Heres, MD, a UPMC Pain Medicine specialist. Dr. Heres conducted a thorough examination that included measuring her level of pain.

“The pain was pretty significant. Dr. Heres found swelling was still present, along with the herniations and tears. Actually, I felt his report helped validate the pain I was having,” says Lori.

When Dr. Heres asked Lori about her goals, she said, “I would like to be able to tie my shoes. I’ve gone from endurance running to nothing. It’s just been mind-blowing.”

They discussed her treatment options, including muscle relaxers and over-the-counter and prescription medicines. He also recommended an epidural steroid injection in her lower back.

Within a few weeks of the injection, her pain level decreased. “That injection gave me my life back,” says Lori. “I could walk upright, complete daily living activities, and even tie my shoes!”

Back on Track

Follow-up treatments at UPMC Pain Medicine included a second injection and additional physical therapy.

“Throughout all the treatments I had, even during the pandemic, my UPMC providers went above and beyond,” she adds. “I didn’t really know what to expect and it was frightening not knowing what my future would look like. I have great praise for how they treated me.”

In 2022, just days before competing in an endurance run in Utah, Lori suddenly experienced severe back pain again. The symptoms were similar to what she felt in 2020, so she contacted UPMC Pain Medicine.

She hadn’t been at the Pain Medicine office for 18 months, but the team remembered Lori, reviewed her patient records, and provided a prescription. Lori then used the MyUPMC app to schedule a follow-up appointment with Dr. Heres. “I am back on my feet and running again, but I’m cautious,” says Lori.

“I’m still in physical therapy and I take medicine when I need to. But most of all, I know that I have a team of providers who I can count on. They fight for me.”

About Pain Medicine

There are many different types of pain out there, with many different causes. Whether your pain is acute or chronic, and no matter the cause, UPMC Pain Medicine is here to help. Our staff specializes in pain management and treatment and can help with whatever pain you’re experiencing. Our multidisciplinary approach includes experts in a variety of specialties, including medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and psychology. We can address your pain, whether simple or complex, and whatever factor is causing it. Visit our website to find an expert near you.