Robert's story: G-forces and the spine

It was exhilarating work. It was heroic work. And it took a toll on Robert's spine.

Looking back, Robert attributes his back problems to the six years he spent as a U.S. Navy pilot during the Cold War. Catapulting from 0 to 170 miles per hours in a span of 300 feet on an aircraft carrier does something to a spine. Being jerked to a stop by thick steel cables at 140 miles per hour does something to a spine. Flight maneuvers with seven times your body weight pushing down upon you does something to a spine.

"The thing that would affect your back the most is high-G flight maneuvers," Robert muses. "You're getting 7, 8 or 9 G's going right down your spine and trying to crush you."

Robert, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, logged more than 300 jarring carrier landings on the USS Forrestal, mostly in the Mediterranean Sea but also in Guantánamo Bay. Those G's, or G-forces -- a measurement of gravity forces on the human body during acceleration – led Robert decades later to the office of Bradbury Skidmore, MD, a neurosurgeon with Mayfield Brain & Spine.

"I'm the kind of guy who likes straight talk," Robert says. "When I first saw him after my x-rays and MRI, he came in and said, 'Robert, your spine is a mess.' I detected some dry humor as he knew I had read all the reports! I said to myself, 'This is the guy I want to talk to.' He explained in great detail, expecting I was smart enough to follow it. He never talked down to me at all. We decided to do certain things, and it all worked out great."

Over a period of three years, Robert underwent three spinal decompression procedures, at L2-3, L4 and L5-S1, to open up space around his spinal cord and nerves, and to relieve pain. The procedures involved two foraminotomies and one laminotomy. All three were performed at the Mayfield Spine Surgery Center. After each procedure, Robert walked out on his own and was home in time for lunch.

Robert began having back pain in his early 50s while flying the world as Chief Pilot for Procter & Gamble

A history of back troubles

Robert began having back pain in his early 50s while flying the world as Chief Pilot for Procter & Gamble. Robert's primary care physician recommended that he see a chiropractor, which he did. "Chiropractic and appropriate exercises worked very well for 20 years," Robert says. "And then they didn't work."

Robert then saw a pain management physician, Lester Duplechan, MD, and was given epidural steroid injections. Those controlled his pain for four years, but stenosis in his spine – a narrowing of the spinal and nerve root canals – was progressing. When the pain injections no longer brought relief, Dr. Duplechan referred Robert to Dr. Skidmore, whose reputation Robert knew well "from neighbors who had had some serious back operations by Dr. Skidmore."

Dr. Skidmore prescribed physical therapy first. Then, when it was clear that PT would not resolve Robert's difficulties, he recommended surgery. The surgery would be a same-day procedure, giving Robert his introduction to the Mayfield Spine Surgery Center.

"The outpatient surgery center was fantastic," Robert says. "The people there, the nurses, everybody, are very knowledgeable, very friendly. I walked out of there on my own an hour after the operation. I was there at 7 a.m. and home eating lunch at noon. And it was a 40-minute drive there. The center was very modern, and the staff was helpful to the person who is there with you to bring you home. It was an amazingly good experience if it's something you have to do."

Over the next few years, as age and wear and tear continued to take a toll, Robert found himself in a continuum of care involving physical therapy with Dale Brockman, PT, pain injections with Dr. Duplechan and Mayfield's Marc Orlando, MD, and surgery with Dr. Skidmore. "I was very lucky to get into a circle of providers who all respected each other's knowledge and expertise," Robert says.

Robert's most recent surgery was in September 2018. Prior to the procedure, he was in enough misery that he could not sit comfortably or drive without stinging sciatic nerve pain, from his back to his toes. As Dr. Skidmore considered Robert's case, he knew that one solution was a major operation that would straighten Robert's back and alleviate scoliosis with rods and screws. But Dr. Skidmore also observed that, over the years, Robert's body had effectively fused his lower spine with calcium growths. Because there was no instability, another outpatient procedure was the safer route.

For a third time, Robert arrived at the Spine Surgery Center and walked out unassisted. "I felt super," he says. "And since then I've had no pain whatever. I am walking and exercising; all with no pain, and am back to my fighting weight at 177 pounds."

Earlier in Robert's retirement, he enjoyed captaining an ocean-going sailboat. "Sailing was one of my big hobbies, which I learned at the Naval Academy," he says. "And I enjoyed golf and tennis. And now I can play golf again, which I couldn't for three years. I don't feel I have any restrictions whatever on any athletic activities.

"There are a lot of unfounded fears about spinal operations," Robert continues. "My advice: Do not live with serious back problems! It greatly limits your activities and adversely affects your quality of life. Advances in equipment and procedures used by skilled surgeons like Dr. Skidmore have made spinal surgery safe, with shortened recovery times. Don't wait to take positive action!"

~ Cindy Starr

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Hope Story Disclaimer -"Robert's Story" is about one patient's health-care experience. Please bear in mind that because every patient is unique, individual patients may respond to treatment in different ways. Results are influenced by many factors and may vary from patient to patient.


Robert, photo by Joe Simon

"There are a lot of unfounded fears about spinal operations," Robert says. "My advice: Do not live with serious back problems! It greatly limits your activities and adversely affects your quality of life. Advances in equipment and procedures used by skilled surgeons like Dr. Skidmore have made spinal surgery safe, with shortened recovery times. Don't wait to take positive action!"


photos by Joe Simon