Broken neck? Let’s collaborate!

12/24/2013
Skull and cervical vertebrae, posterior view

Skull and cervical vertebrae, posterior view (Photo credit: Rob Swatski)

I broke my neck Thursday night.

I fell nine feet into a concrete stairwell behind my house. By all rights I should be a quadriplegic, but through some miracle I was able to stand up, brush myself off and walk away.

I did not escape completely unscathed. My head is immobile and tilts at a 60-degree angle to the left. This is the result of damage done to my first and second cervical vertebrae, minor compared to what might have been but still not ideal.

Over the past few days I have had two sets of x-rays taken, two CT scans and an MRI. Yesterday I met with a neurosurgeon. I do not have a lot of experience with surgeons in general and none with neurosurgeons. I expected a smart, arrogant man who would tell me what it what. That is not what I got.

What I got was a great lesson in collaborative problem-solving.

Apparently my surgeon, a very highly regarded teaching surgeon, had never seen a condition like mine. Apparently my two top vertebrae gave been displaced into what looks like those Chinese interlocking puzzles that seem so simple but are actually very complex.

After admitting to me he’d been puzzled by my condition, including why I was not a quad, he brought in a colleague to look at the MRI and CT scans on the computer. They pointed things out to each other and discussed a range of possible treatments, all with me in the room. Not satisfied with what they came up with, they brought in a third colleague and started the process over. Everyone was equal, everyone contributed and no idea was rejected out of hand. A plan emerged.

What happened next really stunned me. The two colleagues left and two others came in. The process was started all over again. When the same plan emerged, everyone, including me, was confident it was the right one.

Then my doctor turned his computer around and walked me through the whole process again. He showed me all the pictures from the scans and MRI and pointed out a variety of issues, then went into a detailed explanation of the two most likely treatments: external traction or surgery. He said traction was problematic because “you are a big guy with a lot of muscle in your neck.” He didn’t think they’d be able to put enough traction on to solve the problem. Surgery was clearly the better options. He as not satisfied until I fully understood the problem I presented, what they would do in the surgery, the difficulties they might face, and the potential downsides (I may be a quadriplegic yet).

In all, I spent four hours with the doctors. Four hours! And I came away with incredible confidence in the ability of these doctors to solve problems, work together and not let egos get in the way.

Collaboration works. No one of us is as smart as two or more of us together.

Surgery will be Dec. 31st.

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