You don’t usually call a man “lucky” after he wipes out on a snowmobile, breaks bones, and has to be medevaced to the nearest trauma center. You do, however, when you realize just how close he came to severing his spinal cord. Dr. Michael G. Kaiser from The Spine Hospital at The Neurological Institute of New York was this man’s surgeon and here is the story of how his spinal cord was saved.
At the time of the accident, the man–for anonymity, we’ll call him George–was a fit and healthy 65 year old at the beginning of an enjoyable retirement filled with travel and outdoor adventure.
On such an adventure, he flipped his snowmobile and in a split second his life nearly changed forever. At the emergency room, imaging tests showed that he had broken his sternum (the bone in the center of his chest), a bone in his neck and three bones in his mid back, including a burst fracture in the middle of his spine.
A burst fracture occurs when an immense top-down impact causes all or part of the vertebral body to shatter and collapse. The vertebral body sits adjacent to the spinal canal, and this kind of break can shoot bone fragments into the spinal cord.
Miraculously, George showed no neurological signs that would indicate his cord had been injured, and the bone appeared to be stable. George was given a back brace, some pain medication and told to rest. He was told he’d have periodic X-Rays to make sure the bone was healing well.
After returning home, George spent a few weeks resting before going to The Spine Hospital to see Dr. Kaiser for a full evaluation. Dr. Kaiser took more images and says that the crushed bone wasn’t healing well and was actually creeping into the spinal canal. He determined that without surgery, George’s spinal cord was in danger and he could face permanent disability.
Dr. Kaiser says that during the surgery, the first thing he did was a laminectomy. That is, he removed part of the lamina or bone from the back of the fractured vertebrae to expose and take pressure off the back of the spinal cord. Once inside, he discovered tissue just millimeters from the cord that was swollen and showed signs of injury. Next, Dr. Kaiser carefully snaked his way around the spinal column and removed the unstable bone fragments from the vertebral body that were pressing on the front of the cord.
George’s spine was then distracted to re-create normal alignment and a titanium cage was inserted where intact bone had once been. Dr. Kaiser finally performed a spinal fusion, using rods and screws to tighten everything up and ensure stability. Pieces of bone, removed from the site earlier, were then pressed onto the outside of the fusion. This bone would eventually grow into the area to further increase stability. With the surgery complete, George’s spinal cord was finally safe.
Using compassion and expertise, the doctors, nurses and staff at the Spine Center nursed George back to health and he finally went home. He returned to The Spine Hospital less than a month later and began a carefully planned regimen of physical therapy with The Spine Hospital’s Physical Therapy team.
After five months of therapy he had regained enough strength and mobility that he could continue exercising on his own. A year after the accident, George was back in the swing of his retirement. He sent Dr. Kaiser a photo with himself at the helm of a speed boat and the expression on his face clearly reads, “Luckiest man alive!”
Image Credit: Loren Thomas / Adobe Images
Originally posted on Mar 3, 2010
Updated on Nov 2, 2016