You’ve likely seen or heard of “Dr. No,” the first movie in the enduring James Bond series.

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Dr. Mark Lyerly

If a biopic were made about Dr. Mark Lyerly, it could be titled “Dr. Yes.” The neurosurgeon who works in both the Kimel Park (Winston-Salem) and Bermuda Run locations of Novant Health Brain & Spine Surgery has become well-known for operating on patients – seniors, in particular – who’ve been turned down by other surgeons. He’s done over 6,000 procedures on patients 55 and older and 2,400 procedures on patients 70 years and up.

Last November, Lyerly said “yes” to Caryl Mlincek, now 87, of Rock Hill, South Carolina. (Her last name is pronounced M’lin-check. It’s actually her first name that’s trickier. She was the firstborn, and her parents thought they’d have a boy. Mlincek is named for her dad, Carl, and “Caryl” is pronounced the same way.)

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Why did Lyerly operate when others had passed?

“Caryl’s spunky,” he said. “She looks and acts younger than her chronological age. And her age alone wasn’t a reason to deny her surgery.” Lyerly doesn’t believe age alone is reason to deny anyone a procedure that may alleviate their pain and improve their quality of life.

“Her main complaints were neck and shoulder pain, and it was worse on her right side,” Lyerly said. “Before she came to me, she’d seen two neurosurgeons and an orthopedic surgeon, and all three had declined to operate. She told me they focused on her X-rays more than they focused on her.”

Lyerly suspects other surgeons said “no” because of her age and the fact that her condition wasn’t life-threatening. They may also have “looked at her with scoliosis correction in mind – a large surgery – instead of considering a smaller surgery that could alleviate a significant portion of her symptoms.”

Doctors told Mlincek she was too old for surgery. “I had never considered myself too old for anything,” she said. “I know I’m closer to the end than the beginning, but don't put me on the garbage heap.”​

Mlincek wasn’t nervous about surgery. She’s had many over the years, including her first anterior fusion 25 or so years ago. (An anterior fusion relieves pressure on the nerve roots or spinal cord. A surgeon removes a damaged disc and uses a bone graft to fill the space between the bones.)

Mlincek’s long history of back trouble dates back to about 1968 when she had her first surgery on her lower (lumbar) spine. That was followed over the years by another eight or nine – she’s lost count – lumbar fusions. After the last fusion, she was partially paralyzed and lived that way for about 20 years until she had neck fusion surgery at 61.

“We don't know what caused the paralysis,” she said. “The best guess is that all the lumbar fusions on my lower spine somehow compromised the spinal cord. When they did the anterior fusion, it released the pressure. Within about six months, I could walk without restriction.”

‘I had lost any desire to live’

While Mlincek has had back problems, including scoliosis, since her 20s, the pain had become debilitating in recent years. For the past decade or so, she’s taken prescription pain pills. Even when she was taking three or four pills a day, she wasn’t getting relief.

It had gotten “to the point where I was no longer able to do much of anything,” she said. “I had lost any desire to live. I could still walk, but I had no energy to do anything. And when other doctors saw my birth date – December 1936 – they said I was too old for surgery.”

The pain persisted, but so did Mlincek. She kept visiting doctors. “I kept hearing: ‘I wouldn’t touch you because it might kill you.’ I was getting very angry.”

Mlincek considered the internet her last hope. It led her to one – one! – surgeon who’d made a specialty of operating on seniors. He appeared to be in West Virginia or New England (he’d actually worked in both), and her research indicated he may have retired.

A doctor who listens

Lyerly was the doctor Mlincek’s Google search identified. And he had not retired. He and his wife were in the process of moving to the Winston-Salem area to be closer to their four grown sons and their families.

His Triad office wasn’t exactly convenient to Rock Hill – it’s 2.5 to 3 hours away, depending on the time of day. But the trek was well worth it. Lyerly listened to her. “He saved my sanity and possibly my life,” Mlincek said.

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