In 2000, Plano spine surgeon Dr. Scott Blumenthal made history by performing the first artificial disc replacement (ADR) surgery in the United States, a procedure previously only available overseas.
A few thousand ADR surgeries later, Jack Harris walked into Blumenthal’s Texas Back Institute and left a changed man.
Harris, a Vietnam veteran, retired Dallas police officer and avid outdoorsman, had been experiencing excruciating pain in his shoulders, arms and hands for more than 10 years, making his life so difficult that he couldn’t change a light bulb, stand for more than 20 minutes or focus on anything but pain during social gatherings.
“I’m a very active person, and even with the level of pain I’ve been in I’ve not let it beat me down,” Harris said. “It had gotten to where I couldn’t walk 50 feet and it was getting to the point where I was getting up three times at night.”
After numerous shoulder surgeries did little to alleviate the chronic pain, Harris first learned of his cervical spine degeneration in 2012 after an orthopedic surgeon ordered an MRI of his neck.
A neurosurgeon scheduled a spinal fusion, but a snafu with Harris’ insurance company forced him back to square one.
“I actively investigated artificial disc replacement, and the benefits of a disc replacement became very obvious over a fusion, so I shifted my focus,” he said. “I started investigating and I found out there was a product that had gone through trials in the U.S., but had not been approved.”
Through his research, Harris came across Blumenthal, who he said caught his eye by being named one of the top 20 spine surgeons in the country. Harris sent over his MRI and progress notes from years of failed treatments, and a week later he was approved for ADR surgery.
“The hard part of it was we knew my insurance company was going to refuse payment, because they don’t acknowledge it for being anything but experimental,” he said. “I had to scrape together money out of savings to pay for it, but they did their job and they did it really well. I flew to Dallas [from Santa Fe, NM.] on July 29, had surgery and woke up about an hour later in recovery. All the pain was gone. … To be honest, I was just hoping to get rid of some of the pain. I’m literally pain-free and completely off pain pills. I wake up every day and I’m amazed at the quality of life. It’s worth every penny.”
Harris, who believes experiencing near crashes and hard landings in helicopters during combat and being broadsided in his squad car on duty with Dallas PD contributed to his pain, said he’s grateful Blumenthal was willing to work with him to get the expensive surgery into an affordable range.
“I don’t think we should, as patients, have to choose between our savings and a procedure that we’re paying insurance premiums for that they really ought to pay for and refuse,” Harris said. “Even though other insurance companies are paying, some are balking, thinking this is experimental. I so believe in this product and this group of doctors and nurses … that I wanted to get the message out.”
Although Blumenthal performed the first ADR surgery on U.S. soil in 2000, it was on an experimental basis until it gained FDA approval in 2004. While initially performed in the lower back and lumbar spine, Blumenthal said the cervical, or neck area of the spine, has gained popularity.
“We’ve done over 2,000 of these ADR surgeries with various types of discs, and with the cervical I favor LDR’s Mobi-C Disc for the one and two levels,” said Blumenthal, who serves as spine consultant for the Dallas Mavericks. “If someone told you that you needed cervical fusion for a disc problem in your neck, you kind of owe it to yourself to see if you’re a candidate for the ADR, because the long-term results are really proving to be superior to the fusion.”
The Mobi-C Disc, which Harris received, is the only artificial cervical disc that is FDA approved for both one and two level cervical disc replacements. And while more and more insurance companies are including cervical ADR in their coverage, most will only cover one disc.
“Getting an FDA approval for a two-level disc replacement is a huge deal because half the patients we see with herniated discs in the neck are at two levels,” Blumenthal said. “This [would] allow us to expand the ADR to the two-level patients as well.”
Two-level patients, like Harris, have disc problems at two places in the spine or neck. Candidates for ADR typically experience neck pain that radiates into one or both arms and is often associated with weakness or numbness.
“This disc replacement technology has allowed us to help so many more people than we could have previously, and results like [Harris’] are not surprising anymore,” Blumenthal said. “We can do this complicated disc surgery and most [patients] do exquisitely well, like Mr. Harris is doing. It’s very satisfying and humbling.”
And Harris couldn’t be more satisfied. “The thing I didn’t expect is that within a month, I would be living my life as if the condition I had had never occurred,” he said. “One of the things I’m looking forward to doing immediately is getting back on the hiking trails [in New Mexico]. I live at the end of the [mountains] and there are amazing hiking and camping opportunities. I’m also hoping to be able to get back into scuba diving. I’m a scuba dive master and I love to be doing that.”
While he ponders what he’ll do now that he’s pain-free, Harris cannot thank Blumenthal and his team at the Texas Back Institute enough for giving him his life back.
“I felt like I was the most important person on the planet from the time that I first contacted them until I flew to Dallas,” he said. “The nurses, anesthesiologists, assistant surgeons … everything about this team is about making you feel comfortable and cared for and that they’re going to take care of you.
“If you’ve been told that you need a spinal fusion you owe it to yourself to contact somebody like Dr. Blumenthal that is offering another option. It’s a game changer. … Even if your insurance won’t pay for it, consider spending the money because it’s worth it. I’m sitting here and I’m living proof that it is.”
For information, visit texasback.com.