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Reyelts faces risky surgery

Barbara Reyelts is undergoing risky surgery this week to correct a rare congenital defect. It's a surgery that could save her life but may leave her paralyzed.

Reyelts, one of Duluth's most familiar faces as anchor and investigative reporter for KBJR, has suffered for many years with pain associated with a curvature of the spine. But in the last six months, Reyelts noticed the pain getting worse and a shortness of breath she never used to have. An avid runner, dancer and dance instructor, Reyelts knew something must be wrong. "I had been feeling shortness of breath as I ran and as I danced," Reyelts said. "I've always kept in good shape, my health has always been wonderful. When this started happening, I figured this isn't right."

After undergoing a series of tests, doctors determined that the curvature, which had remained stable for many years, had started to progress again. "It's pulling it to the side and twisting it," Reyelts said. "That's what's putting pressure on my ribs. I noticed it first running a couple of miles every day. As I was running, I found myself short of breath, and it didn't make any sense, because I hadn't changed my pattern."

As the spine has continued to curve and put pressure on the ribs, the ribs are putting pressure on her lungs. "Both lungs are collapsing. The worst is on the left side," she said. "It's going even faster than the doctors thought it would."

Reyelts' lungs collapsing is, in turn, causing additional strain on the heart as it continually pumps blood to the lungs. During a preoperative exam, doctors found significant problems with her heart as a result of the deteriorating condition of her spine.

Doctors in Duluth told Reyelts, who is 47 years old and has worked in the Duluth market since 1979, that nothing could be done and gave her five to 10 years to live as the increasing pressure on heart and lungs would eventually kill her. But Reyelts didn't give up. She went online and found Dr. Francis Denis at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

"Lucky for me, the leading spine surgeons in the country are located in the Twin Cities," Reyelts said. "I'm very lucky I have one of the best surgeons around. There are only a handful of surgeons that can do what needs to be done."

The surgery will take 11 to 15 hours and involves a formidable list of steps to be taken to try to correct the problem. "The doctor will take out some of the ribs, try to straighten the spine, put a rod in, take bone from the hip and graft it into the spine and do some fusions," Reyelts said. "There's a possibility they may have to harvest a muscle and graft that in there, too."

There is a significant risk of paralysis from this surgery, Reyelts says, but she takes comfort knowing a lot of friends are praying for her. Also, the fact that she's in such good physical shape going into the surgery is a benefit. "They should be able to get a better correction to my spine because I'm in such good shape and am flexible," Reyelts said. "They say that will definitely help."

Reyelts expects recovery from the surgery to be long and difficult. She'll be in the hospital for up to two weeks and then home wearing a special brace 23 hours a day for six months. The brace, molded to her body, will be adjusted regularly. "This has put a damper on the holidays, but the one thing that's promising is I've had significant back pain since I was a little girl," Reyelts said. "The doctor thinks he can reduce my pain 70 percent. We've tried to find the positive."

Her co-workers are also looking to be as positive as possible, said Dave Jensch, news director at News 6. "It's a scary thing for all of us," Jensch said. "But at the same time we are all optimistic. She's an extremely strong person, physically and emotionally, and I have complete confidence that she'll come through this."

Illustrating his confidence, Jensch said he's looking forward to Reyelts coming back to work soon. Next week maybe? "I sent a laptop computer down with her," Jensch said smiling. "I say that laughingly, because Barbara's the kind of person who needs to be working all the time."

Reyelts is an investigative reporter for KBJR. "Barbara's charge is to find stories, however long that might take, and do the research and put these projects together," Jensch said. "She has a much looser deadline to allow her the freedom to come up with stuff that's normally not reported."

Reyelts is also responsible for a series of consumer reports and many public appearances as a representative from KBJR.

The I-Team will not be active for the next couple of weeks, but Jensch is hoping that with the help of a sophisticated laptop computer and the Internet, Reyelts will be able to continue working on some of her projects before too long. "We believe she'll be flat on her back for the next couple of weeks," Jensch said. "She is fully set up at home. She can do everything there that she can do here. Between the Internet, telephone and cell phone, we're pretty confident that she'll continue to be effective for the I-Team."

If Jensch sounds like a taskmaster, he doesn't mind. He and Reyelts have been friends for 20 years, and he says he knows what she needs.

"It's the best thing in the world for her to have these assignments and have this mission," Jensch said. "I think it will help her in her recovery."

Steve Reyelts, Barbara's husband, will bring her mother and their three children down to the hospital this week so they will be there when she gets out of surgery.