From Facing Paralysis to Pain Free: One Man’s Spine Surgery Success Story

After decades of working in physically demanding jobs, Andrew Stratton, Battalion Chief at the Cranford Fire Department in Cranford, NJ, was diagnosed with severe cervical spinal cord compression in 2017. The compression was caused by 3 bulging discs in his neck, and his condition required spine surgery to prevent life-altering complications.

The idea of undergoing neck surgery was daunting, but Stratton found a glimmer of hope when he read about another fire chief’s spine surgery success. Stratton had cervical spine surgery in early 2018, and he shared his story with SpineUniverse.
Male firefighter holding a fire hose and wearing respiratory gearAfter decades of working in physically demanding jobs, Battalion Chief was diagnosed with severe cervical spinal cord compression in 2017. SpineUniverse: Tell us about your spinal disorder. Can you share how you developed bulging discs in your neck?
Andrew Stratton: I believe my issues are a result of more than 30 years of a blue-collar lifestyle. Besides being a firefighter for more than 20 years, I was a car mechanic and general contractor for many years.

I was diagnosed with spinal cord compression between C3 and C6. I had been experiencing lower back pain for the last 2 years due to severe lumbar spinal stenosis at L5-S1 and was planning to have surgery to address that at some point.

After 2 failed attempts at steroid injections at L5-S1, my pain management doctor suggested a baseline MRI scan to see what was up with my neck. Then, the bomb dropped: I was told my neck needed surgery immediately, as I risked becoming a quadriplegic if I didn’t address my spinal cord compression.

SpineUniverse: Can you describe the neck pain symptoms you’ve experienced? How long had you been suffering from your symptoms?
Andrew Stratton:
I had a stiff neck for about a year, and it worsened when I was physically working for extended periods.

I also began to experience pain down my left arm and numbness on the nail bed of my left thumb at night when I rolled onto my right side. This numbness occurred for about 3 months leading up to my neck surgery.

SpineUniverse: Tell us about your surgery.
Andrew Stratton:
The spine surgeon from the medical group that ordered the MRI recommended I have a triple-level fusion. I was told I would lose up to 70% of my mobility in my neck, and my career as a firefighter would be over.

Facing the possibility of a triple-level fusion rocked my world—it would have ended almost everything I loved to do. That’s why I sought a second opinion at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City and met with Dr. Han Jo Kim who offered a different treatment approach.

Dr. Kim performed a posterior cervical laminoplasty and laminectomy between C3 and C6. Though my first spine surgeon recommended a triple-level fusion, Dr. Kim did not perform any fusion with my procedure.

SpineUniverse: What has your recovery been like so far?
Andrew Stratton:
It’s gone completely as expected. I have followed Dr. Kim’s post-operative instructions to the letter, and I feel almost 100% pain-free after just 6 weeks. I did not need bracing or physical therapy as part of my recovery.

SpineUniverse: What was your pain like before surgery? And after?
Andrew Stratton:
  Before surgery, my pain level was at a 4. After surgery, my pain was at an 8 for about 10 days, but I was told to expect this spike. As my incision healed, my pain reduced each week. At 6 weeks after surgery, my pain level is less than 1. I’m already at my pre-surgery activity level.

SpineUniverse: What advice do you have for people who are recovering from spine surgery?
Andrew Stratton:
  Eat healthy food, particularly protein. Also, avoid narcotic pain medication unless it’s absolutely needed—opioids can be dangerous. Walk as much and as soon as you can. And, above all, follow your surgeon’s recovery instructions!

SpineUniverse: What advice do you have for others considering spine surgery?
Andrew Stratton:
If you aren’t comfortable with a treatment approach, always get a second opinion. It could make all the difference in the world.

Updated on: 05/15/18
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