Imagine browsing the Louvre Museum as burning pain rips at your lower back. This is the predicament in which Dave Bullock, a veteran of the United States Army and former National Park Service employee, found himself during a visit to Paris in 2018. Every 10 minutes or so, he had to find a place to sit to ease his discomfort. Dave and his wife Laura loved exploring Europe together, but after five or six years of increasingly bothersome back trouble, he was forced to put future travel plans on hold.
In the years that followed, the Hyde Park, New York, resident felt his quality of life slipping away. His back continued to act up—so much so that even walking to the mailbox at the end of his driveway caused extreme discomfort. Sometimes he’d feel a knifelike jab that made him stoop as he walked. Other times, the pain would travel down the backs of his legs. Tramadol, an opioid painkiller prescribed by his primary care doctor, failed to provide sufficient relief from his back pain. Dave realized something had to be done, so once COVID-19 restrictions lifted, he reached out to Jeffrey A. Goldstein, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at NYU Langone’s Spine Center.
In June 2021, Dr. Goldstein evaluated Dave and ordered X-rays and an MRI. The scans revealed high-grade spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. The condition led to pinched nerves. “You could see exactly what was causing the problem,” said Dave. The images also showed instability in his spine, or spondylolisthesis. This occurs when one or more bones in the lower spine slip out of position. Dr. Goldstein determined that Dave would be an excellent candidate for spine surgery.
A Robotic Surgery Solution
Dave had concerns about having surgery on his spine, but he wanted a long-term solution, not a temporary fix. His fears were put to rest after Dr. Goldstein, clinical professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, explained the approach he would take and his success with similar patients.
“We agreed that less-invasive robotic spine surgery would be the best option for alleviating Dave’s back pain,” said Dr. Goldstein. “Robotic surgery improves patient care by allowing me to place the screws I used to stabilize his spine through smaller incisions, and that can make for a quicker recovery.”
The two-part operation, which took place at NYU Langone’s Kimmel Pavilion in September 2021, addressed Dave’s dual diagnoses. First, Dr. Goldstein performed a lateral lumbar interbody fusion, a procedure to stabilize the spine using screws and rods. The lateral approach allows the surgeon to reach the affected bones in the spine from the side of the body, instead of making an incision in the patient’s back.
Next, Dr. Goldstein performed decompression surgery to reduce pressure on the nerve roots in Dave’s back. More specifically, he used a technique called microscopic laminectomy, or removal of the bony “roof” of the spinal canal to create more space.
A Quick Recovery
The day after surgery, a physical therapist came by to see if Dave felt ready to get up and walk around. To his surprise, he made it to the end of the hall and back with the aid of a walker, but without the pain that had been nagging his back for years.
“I could tell the difference immediately,” recalled Dave, now 66 years old. “I could stand up straight without the knife-jabbing pain in back, and that’s when I knew I was going to be fine.” All that remained was some postsurgical pain. The Spine Center arranged for a physical therapist and nurse in Dave’s area to visit him at home so he could continue his rehabilitation. “A month and a half after surgery, I felt like a new person,” he said. By the six-month mark, he felt that he had made a full recovery.
A little more than a year after surgery, Dave and Laura returned to France. Without the limitations of back pain, the couple logged 41 miles on foot over 21 days. “I give all the credit in the world to Dr. Goldstein and the robotic surgery that he performed,” said Dave, now retired and enjoying activities like travel and gardening. “I have my active lifestyle back without limitations. It’s like having a new lease on life.”