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Stepping Forward: Neuropathy Survivor Leaves Pain Behind

by Elizabeth Lunt

John on a recent trip to ScotlandUntil January of last year, John Cheadle, a 60-year-old diabetic with neuropathy in his hands and feet, was in agony. He could barely get through the day. As executive director of program facilities at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, he manages a half-million-square-foot facility—buildings and a parking garage—that covers an entire city block. To get around, John had resorted to a scooter and, even then, carefully conserved his energy.

Neuropathy, a complication for up to half of all diabetics, causes tingling, burning and numbness in the hands and feet. “It is definitely chronic,” states John, who said he didn’t seek medical attention for his symptoms for 10 years. By then the condition had become not just chronic, but debilitating.

He did everything he “could think of doing” to ease his pain. A neurologist put him on Neurontin and Tramadol, both prescription medications for pain management. He tried acupuncture with a doctor who had studied in China. He went for chiropractic treatments. He used the scooter. He devised coping strategies. “I couldn’t hold a pen,” he recalls. “I would hold my arms down at my sides and then I could write for a little while, things like that.” He was just able to function taking nine pills a day.

Cortisone shots in his carpal tunnel eased the symptoms in his hands, but John still could not walk through his day and the pain was intense. Finally, his daughter showed him an ad for the Dellon Institutes for Peripheral Nerve Surgery which, by good fortune, is based in Baltimore. Dr. A. Lee Dellon, a professor of plastic and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, had developed a revolutionary surgery called nerve decompression, to relieve the pain of neuropathy.

John and his wife Barbara can enjoy traveling againDr. Dellon published his first article on the surgery, entitled “A cause for optimism in diabetic neuropathy” in 1988, but new treatments catch on slowly and the medical establishment tends to be conservative. “Doctors are…taught in medical school that neuropathy is progressive and irreversible,” Dr. Dellon says, but he has persevered. This year he was invited to present his research at the American Diabetes Association conference in Washington, D.C. in June. “There are probably four million Americans who are healthy enough to have this operation and be helped,” Dr. Dellon states, “an unbelievable number…which is why I spend so much time teaching and training.”

John is one who has decidedly been helped. “I read a little and looked around and decided I’d give them a try,” recalls John, who was initially skeptical after so many ineffective treatments. This, however, was different. “It is phenomenal,” he says now.

Performed by Dr. Gedge Rosson at the Dellon Institute in Baltimore, John’s surgery involved entering the leg in a few places through small incisions. “Sugar, even when you are in pretty good diabetes control, gets into the nerve and pulls water with it,” explains Dr. Dellon, “When the nerve swells in tight places [there are] tunnels that have to be released.” Opening space for the nerves reduces swelling and restores function, thereby
relieving pain.

“You go in…and you go away,” John says of the outpatient procedure. “It takes about two hours. Then you spend one week with your foot elevated above your heart [and]… a huge cotton clump on your foot.” In the first weeks after surgery, patients use a walker and are encouraged to strengthen muscles by “water walking” in a swimming pool. “It takes about a month where I would say I was ambulating normally,” John says cheerfully, “I get around the building better, [and] I walk to the library on weekends.”

Now fully recovered from nerve decompression surgery in both legs, John Cheadle couldn’t be happier. “There is really no adequate way of telling people what constant pain is like,” he says. “That’s gone.” He pauses to search for words, and then declares: “It’s just joyous not having to deal with that pain all the time. I can enjoy life in the way a person really should.”

John Cheadle’s surgery was performed at the Dellon Institute in Baltimore. Dr. Dellon also has institutes in Boston, Tucson and Las Vegas. The Web site is and the toll-free number is 877-DELLON1 (877-335-5661).

The American Diabetes Association has a page with information on diabetic neuropathy on their Web site at; click “complications”.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, of the National Institutes of Health, has neuropathy information at

The Neuropathy Association is a group which supports people suffering from all types of neuropathy. They report research, lobby for more effective treatments and have an information page for diabetic neuropathy. They also have a directory of support groups. Their Web site address is