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Surgery Helps Good Samaritan Get Back to ‘Work’

Back in Service

Retirement for Emil Baranko meant more time to help others.

After 40 years in construction and management, the 72-year-old Waukegan resident had hung up his tools and gone to work feeding the hungry, raising funds for people with intellectual disabilities and helping farmers who were ill tend their fields.

But his good work stopped when Baranko’s kyphosis, a degenerative spinal condition, progressed to the point where he was experiencing consistent pain. He could no longer receive food donations from the local delivery trucks, or climb into and out of tractors. He had put off treatment long enough and knew he needed to seek help.

“I was losing feeling in my arm, experiencing numbness and tingling, and had difficulty moving,” Baranko says. “It was a struggle to get dressed some days.”

So Baranko decided to pursue care from the expert team he trusted at Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics.

“I had known the practice for years and built up a relationship with Dr. Kolavo,” Baranko says of Jerome Kolavo, MD, a spine surgeon with Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics.

A Trusted Care Team

Dr. Kolavo worked with Baranko to develop a treatment plan that involved fusing several bones in his neck and correcting excessive spinal curvature.

With kyphosis, “the nature of the spine is that it continues to deteriorate,” says Dr. Kolavo. “Surgery in this case is a management tool — not a cure.”

Baranko and his wife spent several hours with Dr. Kolavo and the surgical team in preparation for the procedure. It’s a process Dr. Kolavo says helps patients feel in control of their care and understand exactly how their procedure will go.

“By the time people get to surgery, they know almost as much as we do,” he says.

This type of one-on-one education from surgeons and other care providers is part of what sets Northwestern Medicine apart, says Baranko.

“He’s one of these doctors that when you engage with him, you immediately trust him,” Baranko says. “He takes great pains in making sure that you know exactly what he’s going to do.”

Baranko underwent two spinal procedures during one hospitalization: one to correct curvature in his neck due to shifting vertebrae, and another to correct kyphosis in the back by installing rods.

While in the hospital and recovering from surgery, Baranko says friendly, compassionate staff made all the difference.

“Everyone was just outstanding — the nurses, the staff, even the people who took care of the rooms. They were just such wonderful people,” Baranko says. “You couldn’t ask for better care.”

After surgery, Baranko was transferred to Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital to maximize mobility. “Everyone has been great,” Baranko says. “They all worked with me to get me healthy and get me back on my feet as soon as possible.”

Back to ‘Work’

Baranko has been recovering from his second surgery and is slowly getting back to the work he loves: helping those in need. He is back to helping at his local food pantry, and he's also coordinating an event with Knights of Columbus to raise money for those with intellectual disabilities.

In the fall, he will have the opportunity to get back into the combine and help harvest the fields for farmers experiencing illness and disability.

“Dr. Kolavo has given me the opportunity to do all of this again,” says Baranko. “I wouldn’t be able to do any of this if it weren’t for him.”

For more information on Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics and the Northwestern Medicine Integrated Spine Program, visit or call 630.933.2225.

Northwestern Medicine Integrated Spine Program