Patient Stories

My Spine Surgery Journey by John Appleton

John is a healthy and active 70-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand. He first contacted us in mid-2019 for a second opinion after being advised locally for a spine fusion, which he wanted to avoid if possible.

We guided John through our remote assessment process to ensure our surgeons received all the correct diagnostics they needed.

Within 4 days our surgeons evaluated his data and we delivered John the good news, he was accepted for the L4-5 and L5-S1 disc replacement surgery he was hoping for. His Evaluation Report contained his diagnosis, treatment plan, symptom improvement goal, all inclusions and a fixed-price package for his 2 weeks in Germany. This included 7 days private hospital room recovery, and 7 days intensive rehabilitation at Medicos Aufschalke, Europe’s largest rehab centre.

John already had a good idea of what to expect, as his neighbor Joel had already made the trip to Germany for the exact same surgery two years ago! His experience had been a big topic of discussion as John’s symptoms worsened in recent months.

John traveled to Germany for the same surgery his neighbor Joel received just two years prior

Within two months and with wife Christine by his side, John was undergoing his surgery with our senior neurosurgeon Dr. Thomas Bierstedt.

Upon returning home, he sent the following summary and photos of his journey for us to share with other patients considering motion-preserving spine surgery in Germany.

My Spine Surgery Journey

by John Appleton

It’s now 10 weeks today since my surgery with Dr. Thomas Bierstedt in Germany and overall I am feeling really good. I have only minimal nerve pain in my feet which doesn’t bother me or keep me awake at night. I am not taking any medications and feel I am way ahead of my recovery schedule.

My first spine surgery was a Discectomy and Laminectomy in New Zealand in 2013. Although it was successful, unfortunately it didn’t provide a long-term solution and soon after Christmas this year the strong sciatic nerve pain returned. While I was very happy with my New Zealand surgeon who did an excellent job for me in 2013, the desire to remain active caused me to research options other than ‘gold standard’ fusion surgery. My neighbor and friend had a remarkable recovery following his ADR surgery in Germany, and it didn’t take me long to decide that I would head to Germany too.

I contacted Jake Lemon at Spine Connection and I was very impressed with the way the remote evaluation and all arrangements were made for me. There was little I had to do other than book the airline tickets. I traveled to Germany from New Zealand as a wheelchair passenger mainly to ensure I didn’t exacerbate my situation. My wife Christine accompanied me as support partner, and I was grateful to have her by my side.

Arriving to Dusseldorf Airport in Germany

The ONZ arrangements kicked in upon arrival at Dusseldorf airport. We were late arriving and seeing the smiling face of Andy our ONZ driver was very much appreciated. He is an excellent ambassador for ONZ. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He’s friendly, personable and VERY efficient. He knew exactly what we needed, and true to his word was always there when he said he would be. From helping us check in at the Bergedick Hotel after midnight, to getting us to the hospital and back to Dusseldorf Airport, he made the whole process seamless.

ONZ private driver Andy was waiting for John and his wife Christine at Dusseldorf Airport

Flying from New Zealand I wanted to ensure time to recover from the Jetlag, so we stayed at Hotel Bergedick for 4 nights (not 2) prior to going to the hospital. The hotel is ideally located just 10 minutes easy walk to the hospital. Our room was fine, the breakfast superb and we enjoyed the dinners served by friendly staff.

Checking in to the pre-hospital Hotel Bergedick

The ONZ check in process at the hospital was smooth and Jessica our patient coordinator was friendly and helpful. Her speaking fluent German and English is a bonus! My hospital room was great, plenty of room including a small ‘ensuite’ TV room with refrigerator. The nurses were caring and helpful. We made friends with everyone including the cleaner and the man who made the lovely coffee that Christine enjoyed daily.

Meeting my surgeon

Our first meeting with Dr. Thomas Bierstedt went really well. He’s a nice man and clearly highly skilled in his field. I felt I was in the ‘right’ place.

John on his way to meet Dr. Bierstedt for the first time

Dr. Bierstedt said he had no objection to me taking the supplements that I had listed in my patient notes and brought with me. I asked if I had to take all the hospital pain medications and he said I could take what I felt I needed.

The surgery went really well, and upon waking I was very happy to find out I had received what I came for, being Artificial Disc Replacement with 2 x M6-L discs. I was up walking the following day and although I felt a bit like a new-born Giraffe, a couple of days later I was walking around the corridors, up and down stairs.

John and his surgeon Dr. Bierstedt in the days following surgery

Hospital recovery after surgery

Post-surgery I didn’t take any medications and simply relied on my supplements and a small PEMF device (German) that I brought with me. I did have pain, but I found that I could cope quite easily knowing that I would improve with time, each day better than the last. I decided to ‘listen’ to my body and be aware of how I was healing. I thought of it as a kid might think about the number of sleeps before Christmas. The mind is incredibly powerful and having the right headspace can be hugely helpful. One of the biggest benefits of not taking opioid medications or others is that my bowel function post-surgery was not compromised as it can be. This made life a lot more pleasant and I was able to eat whatever I wanted.

Relaxing during his hospital recovery in Recklinghausen
The two M6-L Discs can be seen in position at L4/5 and L5/S1
The L4/5 & L5/S1 disc replacement was performed via abdominal approach under John’s belly button. Who said lymphatic drainage couldn’t be fun?

I used my PEMF (Pulsed Electro-Magnetic Field) device on the wound and it healed incredibly quickly. The vitamin C and other supplements I was taking made a massive difference to healing. I never had any pain at the incision site. I confess I did take a sleeping pill at night to ensure that I got some good sleep to help with the healing. I would never say that other patients should do what I did. What the hospital offers is appropriate for most folks. I am just a bit different and I always had the opportunity to fall back on the hospital medications.

John made friends with the hospital catering manager

After a 7 day stay in the hospital, I was ready to head off to Rehab and it was all we expected and more. Although I had no back pain, I was having difficulty standing in one place without significant discomfort. I found if I kept moving it was OK. I guessed this may have been due to facet issues relating to my first surgery.

Checking in to Medicos rehab centre

At Medicos Aufschalke we were met by a friendly and helpful young woman named Anneke. Together we toured the huge rehabilitation facility to learn where all our sessions would be. Overall the whole experience was excellent and run with German efficiency to the nth degree.

Right next door the Marriott Hotel room and facilities were fantastic, and we were well fed both at the Medicos Bistro and the hotel restaurant. We enjoyed the patient lounge and even spent some time relaxing on the sun lounges. The treatment plans were well coordinated, and our practitioners were both highly competent and personable.

Dr. Vieregge (Medical Director) was my doctor and meetings with him were a lot of fun. Not only is he a highly skilled doctor, he injects a lot of personality into his work which added to our overall experience. On our last day we were more than a little sad having to say goodbye to everyone.

Catching the taxi to Medicos Aufschalke Rehab Centre
Staying in the Marriott Hotel right next door
A picture of John’s 7-Day fast track rehab program so he can learn to move confidently again ASAP
John and “the amazing Dr. Vieregge” from Medicos Aufschalke
John and Christine checking out of Medicos rehab center


Before our departure we had a final consultation with my surgeon Dr. Beirstedt to receive clearance to fly home, and then our wonderful driver Andy arrived on time to meet us and deliver us to Dusseldorf airport. We really liked Andy. Our flight home seemed to take forever but flying business class with Air NZ made it relatively easy. The crew couldn’t have been more helpful.

Arriving home in New Zealand

On arrival back in NZ, I got stuck in and continued doing the best I could to help myself. I made a big breakthrough around one week later. While getting up from a couch I heard a loud click from my spine, which I put down to mobilizing my facet joints, and was very pleased to discover all my issues with standing had resolved.

My own rehab program has involved walking, Epsom Salt baths twice daily and massage twice a week. I have found the massage very helpful. The nerve issues with my legs and feet improved sooner than I had expected, and I put this down to the massage keeping the muscles soft. The massage plan focused on Glutes, Piriformis, Hamstrings, Calf muscles and feet (where the nerve endings are). As I got on top of the nerve issues my sleep improved significantly.

At 8 weeks post-op a friend from the U.S. who had surgery two days after me, reported clicking from her vertebrae with just the slightest movement. As it happened, I had noticed the same. It wasn’t painful but there seemed to be a lot going on. I put it down to the vertebrae getting used to their new alignment. I checked with Jake and he assured me that it’s quite normal. My neighbor, who had the same surgery two years earlier said that he had experienced the same, but it had resolved uneventfully.

At 9 weeks post-op I am walking 2.5 kms and for the first time in years I am not aware of my lower back or hips when standing or walking. During walking I am able really stride out and it feels good. When looking down I notice my feet angles are 5 to 1 not the 10 to 2 they were prior to surgery.

Where to from here?

I am waiting until the three-month period is up and hopefully my two Lumbar ‘babies’ will be bonded to the bone. At this point I am planning to commence simple Pilates so that I can regain some of the flexibility that I lost due to Degenerative Disc Disease. The master plan is to be fully fit and ready to get back on my stand-up paddleboard after Christmas. I am really looking forward to this.

John’s goal is to return to his stand-up paddle boarding. Stay tuned for post-Christmas update

5 Month Update!


All in all, we couldn’t be happier with our Spine Connection experience. I am extremely grateful to Jake Lemon for all his help to get me on the journey. If anyone is interested in a package holiday with a difference then this is it. The biggest thing for me is that ADR surgery has turned back the clock and I now have my life back.


*Please read: Every patient is unique and responds to medical treatment differently. Factors influencing outcome from spine treatment and surgery can include overall patient health, underlying medical conditions, degree and duration of existing spine/nerve damage, surgeon experience, technology and surgical techniques used, post-op rehabilitation protocol, and patient diligence in continuing rehab once returning home. We encourage patients to return to a healthy and active lifestyle, and the introduction of new physical activities should be discussed with medical professionals during the recovery phase.
Spine Connection [PR]
Written by Spine Connection [PR]

This content is copyright and property of Spine Connection, the first medical travel organisation for patients with spine damage. Our mission is to provide faster, more affordable and superior spine treatment for patients living anywhere in the world.

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