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Spine Surgery at 70: Let’s Call It A Comeback

Spine Surgery at 70: Let’s Call It A Comeback

A Patient Story at SMH

As the years went by, Jim Frost’s garage began to resemble a tomb.

For the man who was once ferociously active but now approaching 70 and with arthritis twisting the life out of his back, the golf clubs and tennis rackets and bikes and poles and even a 23-foot scout boat were artifacts of another life, cruel reminders of what once was. And as they collected dust, so did Jim.

“I used to be a golfer, a kayaker, a boater and a scuba diver,” he would say. “Now I watch reruns of Matlock.”

Even 14 separate back surgeries had been unable to stave off the spread of the arthritis in his spine.

But when his doctor told him about a new robotic surgery option, made possible by new technology available at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Jim decided to give it one more shot.

He was glad he did.

Today, dusting off the old 4-speed Mustang convertible collector car in the garage—the one with the gearshift he hasn’t been able to use in years because of the pain in his back—he has to decide if he wants to start her up for a leisurely cruise or hop on the brand new bike and pump the pedals.

“70 years old and making this kind of comeback?” he says. “I never thought I’d do it.”

An Early Injury and A Long Time Comin’

“I’ve had problems with my back since junior high school,” says Jim.

But for a kid who was always running around outside, playing baseball and wrestling at school, he never thought much of the persistent soreness in his lower back. He didn’t even realize he had a real injury until he hopped a train to Cleveland at age 18 and tried to sign up to go to Vietnam. Instead, he got sent home with newly diagnosed “vertebra issues.”Neurosurgeon Ryan Glasser, MD

“I was all ready to go,” says Jim. “But when they told me I wasn’t going, I’m not gonna lie to you and say I was disappointed.” He now had vertebra issues to deal with, but that was better than getting chucked halfway across the world to fight in a jungle.

So Jim did what any 18-year-old with the beginnings of a serious spinal issue would do: he landed a job at a General Motors assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, doing hard manual labor building cars. When that proved to be just as horrible for a man with vertebra issues as it sounds, he pivoted to something a little easier on his back: becoming a union rep and criss-crossing the country in cramped cars to deliver seminars five days a week.

Unsurprisingly, the back issues persisted.

“It was always there, always nagging,” says Jim. “But you grow accustomed to these things.” And he was still playing a lot of racquetball and tennis and golf, so it’s not like it was really a problem. Right?

“After I retired, it became a problem.”

Sarasota, Sunshine and Lots o’ Surgery

Retiring to Sarasota with his wife, Jim’s stint in paradise was short-lived, as his back started hurting him like never before. Some friends in the area told him about Dr. Ryan Glasser, a neurosurgeon and spine specialist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

“I immediately liked the guy,” says Jim. “I’ve seen a lot of doctors and I didn’t see anything phony about this guy.”

What Jim didn’t like so much was the diagnosis: severe arthritis in the lower lumbar region of his spine. And he wasn’t the biggest fan of the prescription either: surgery. But after years of trying everything else, the arthritis wasn’t going anywhere and Jim put himself in Dr. Glasser’s hands and agreed to the surgery.

The pain relief was almost immediate. For the first time in a long while, Jim felt good. As time passed, however, the arthritis continued its damage and the pain returned, prompting additional surgeries.

“This happened for several years,” says Jim, and he found himself caught in this painful cycle of surgery, recovery, relief, activity, repeat. The longest operation took more than nine hours and required five surgeons to complete. “And Dr. Glasser explained every surgery to the T—what he was doing and why he was doing it,” says Jim. “He’s all about helping people and he’s doing everything he can to head this thing off, but the arthritis just was not stopping.”

One Last Rodeo and A Recovery to RememberThe ExcelsiusGPS robotic system and its components.

Closing in on 70, with 14 spine surgeries under his belt but the pain recurring, Jim was ready to throw in the towel. Years of arthritis and degeneration had created problem after problem, and now he had a fresh fracture close to a previous surgery site, making any future attempt that much more complex.

Even when Dr. Glasser contacted him to talk about a new, minimally invasive, high-precision robotic surgery system that was now available, Jim wasn’t interested. “I was just fed up,” he says. Besides, it sounded like something out of science fiction: the ExcelsiusGPS.

But what if it worked?

 “I finally agreed to one more surgery,” Jim says. “If it works: fine. If it doesn’t: fine. I quit. I surrender. I give up.”

The morning of, Dr. Glasser tried to explain the surgery again—fusion with the assistance of an ultra-precise robotic navigation system called the ExcelsiusGPS, which would map Jim’s spinal anatomy and ensure that every screw was optimally placed—but Jim wasn’t listening. His back hurt.

When he woke up, it didn’t.

“I immediately felt 100%,” Jim says. He was shocked. Dr. Glasser came in and told him that he too was ecstatic with how the surgery went. “The precision the technology offers allowed me to fix a difficult problem very successfully,” Dr. Glasser says. But he also had other news for Jim: this recovery would not be like the others.

“The first three weeks, excuse my language, were a son-of-a-bitch,” says Jim. This wasn’t the sort of soreness he’d been accustomed to post-surgery, but the kind of pain that left him unwilling to do much more than lay on the couch. He was back to Matlock. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get better,” he says.

So Jim finally went to see Dr. Glasser. What was going on? Dr. Glasser said to be confident. “You’re going to wake up one day and you’re going to feel good,” he said. Jim was understandably wary.

“But he was absolutely right,” he says.

On The Road Again

The boat was sold long ago, but the garage now boasts a brand new three-wheel cycle and a new bicycle, 77 fishing poles, scuba gear and more.

“I can use it all again,” Jim says. “I feel like I’ve never had surgery.”

And right now, he’s spent too long inside and on the phone.

“As soon as I hang up,” Jim says, “I’m going to go see about floating my toy boat up in Benderson Park.”


About the ExcelsiusGPS

Now that you’ve heard how it changed Jim’s life, read more about the ExcelsiusGPS at Sarasota Memorial here

Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. SMH’s in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, Ky, and often eats an entire loaf of bread in one sitting.

Posted: May 10, 2022,
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