December 5, 2018

Retired firefighter undergoes cervical spine surgery

Neck, Back and Spine | Patient Stories

This post is part of the Ultimate Guide to Back Pain Relief

John Mitchell pursued his dream job of becoming a full-time firefighter in spring 2001. John served on the west side of Indianapolis for almost 17 years as a career firefighter and an additional five years as a volunteer firefighter before that. However, during a routine training, John’s commitment to being a firefighter was threatened when he felt a twinge in his upper back.

John thought it was yet another pulled muscle and continued with his training. Eventually the pain in John’s back spread to his left arm. John was recommended by the fire department to visit a doctor. However, the muscle spasms and numbness in John’s arm didn’t get any better after a few visits. That’s when he decided to get an MRI.

John’s results showed several herniated discs in his neck and an impingement on his spinal cord. He was immediately sent to OrthoIndy spine physician, Dr. David Schwartz for an evaluation.

“To say I was nervous, was an understatement,” said John. “Not only was my career in jeopardy but my health and long term well-being were at risk.”

Neck surgery

Dr. Schwartz explained to John that he needed to have neck surgery. John had a very large disc herniation in his neck causing severe spinal cord compression. According to Dr. David Schwartz, this required a very delicate operation on John’s neck.

“My initial meeting with Dr. Schwartz was forty-five minutes long, he answered every question I had with very detailed responses,” said John. “He explained the procedure in such a way that I could understand and made me feel confident in what needed to be done.” John’s experience far exceeded his expectations.

In May 2017, John had an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion. This is a surgical procedure to treat nerve root or spinal cord compression by decompressing the spinal cord and nerve roots of the cervical spine.

“The attention I received from both Dr. Schwartz and his physician assistant were anything but typical,” said John. “Every visit to Dr. Schwartz’s office was pleasant – I was greeted as a friend.”

However, summer 2017 was a difficult time for John and his family. John was facing the pain that goes along with healing and accepting that he had to give up his career as a firefighter.

“Initially, I thought I could out stubborn the injury and return to firefighting but reality set in and so did the depression,” said John. “Even with a great support network of my friends and family. I could feel the walls closing in on me.”

However, Dr. Schwartz’s and his physician assistant Kate VanPoppel really stepped up for John.

“My initial visits after surgery were with Dr. Schwartz’s physician assistant. Kate listened, let me vent and genuinely showed the empathy that helped open the door so that I could be more receptive to my family and friends and their support,” said John.

Life after neck surgery

John has since retired from firefighting and returned to school to finish his degree in biology with his sights set on enrolling in school to become a physician assistant. “The care and compassion that I received at OrthoIndy are a big factor in my decision to do this,” said John.

John reconnected with Dr. Schwartz and Kate in spring 2018 as John started to have what he described as “electrical charges” down both of his arms. After a few tests, Dr. Schwartz found the possibility that two of John’s fusions did not heal correctly. Dr. Schwartz laid out John’s options.

“Unfortunately, in certain patients, the bones don’t always heal together. This is called a non-union. While John’s spinal cord was safe and no longer compressed, his body did not heal as the fusion expected. This is a small but known risk of this surgery,” said Dr. Schwartz.

“Without pressure, Dr. Schwartz let me make the decision to have a posterior fusion,” said John.

John is a few months post surgery, and yet again, cannot stop singing praises about Dr. Schwartz and Kate.

“In my experience as a paramedic, I have encountered many doctors and surgeons. I have been blown away with Dr. Schwartz and Kate by their willingness to help with my healing,” said John.

“Additionally, I am grateful for their compassion towards me and by their ability to share their knowledge in a way that didn’t leave me feeling belittled or overwhelmed.”

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Schwartz, please call 317.802.2883 or learn more about back pain treatment at OrthoIndy.

Schedule an Appointment Call OrthoIndy 317.802.2000
Ashley McGovern

By Ashley McGovern

Ashley is the current PR coordinator for OrthoIndy. Ashley is responsible for all media relations functions and social media strategies. Ashley graduated from Purdue University in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and strategic communications with a certificate in entrepreneurship. She has been with OrthoIndy since January 2018.

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