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Spine Expertise Resolves Risk of Quadriplegia

End to back and neck pain restores Kent McEvers' quality of life and love of travel

Spine surgery helped Kent McEvers get back on the roadEleven states down, 39 to go.

That's Kent and Brenda McEvers' dream. After enjoying cruises for years, the couple bought a fifth-wheel camper and began to explore the United States and the many sights it offers. 

"Cruises are fantastic, but we realized there is so much of our own country we've never seen," Kent says. "Our goal is to fill up a map with stickers of places we've been, to travel the nation and have a blast."

The Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls provided memorable sight-seeing for the Kansas City couple. But all too soon, the roadtrip adventures came to a standstill. Neck and back pain Kent had tolerated for years intensified, threatening his mobility and keeping him at home.

History of pain

Kent, a truck driver, had sought treatment for neck pain in 2003. He had several cervical epidural steroid injections that provided relief for some years.

"But in 2016, that pain flared up," he says. "I had pain any time I turned or looked up, and I found myself leaning forward all the time to try to ease it."

Kent couldn't locate the pain management specialist he'd seen years before, so he visited a new doctor at a different pain management clinic.

"I wasn't too concerned," Kent says. "I knew what to expect. Or so I thought." Unlike the steroid injections he'd previously received to the neck, this time the epidural was applied in the middle of his back. "It was terrifyingly painful. And unlike the previous shots that gave instant relief, this one did nothing for me."

Kent lived with the pain as long as he could, until he started to lose motion in his right arm in the fall of 2017. Soon, he felt numbness in the fingers of his left hand, and then he began to lose feeling in one leg, dragging it instead of lifting it with each step he took.

He returned to the pain management center he'd visited in 2003. The new doctor he saw there ordered an MRI. Upon seeing it, he advised Kent to see a neurosurgeon right away.

The right expertise

The couple returned home and fired up their laptop. Familiar with the reputation of The University of Kansas Health System, Kent and Brenda searched neurosurgeons. The profile and credentials of neurosurgeon Phillip Hylton, MD, felt like a fit, so Kent called his office and booked an appointment for three days later. Kent's primary care provider's office quickly submitted a referral.

"At this point, I could not walk without assistance," Kent says. "When I met Dr. Hylton, I could barely shake his hand. When he asked me to walk for him and watched me struggle to get up out of a chair and take a step, he told me to sit right back down."

Dr. Hylton's exam and review of Kent's MRI revealed three discs severely pinching Kent's spinal cord.

"As soon as I saw him, I knew it was serious," Dr. Hylton says. "Kent was in an emergent situation. The prior two weeks had shown rapid and progressive deterioration. He could easily have woken up at home one morning unable to move. He needed surgery, and he needed it quickly."

Kent says, "I was ready. We had packed a bag." He was admitted to the hospital. His surgery was scheduled for the following day. Though Kent's insurance coverage had not yet been confirmed, plans for surgery and securing coverage unfolded simultaneously.

"Some battles can be fought later, but others have to be fought now," Dr. Hylton says. "Kent's safety and quality of life were my first concerns."

"I really appreciated that," Kent says. "Dr. Hylton knew I had to get this done, or the damage could become irreversible. He was more concerned with my well-being than with getting paid, and he had the experience to know we could do both."

A dramatic turnaround

During a 2½-hour surgery, Dr. Hylton performed an anterior cervical fusion of vertebrae C4, C5 and C6. In this procedure, the vertebral discs are removed from between the cervical vertebrae and spacers are placed to hold the vertebrae the appropriate distance apart. A titanium plate placed over the vertebrae and screwed to each then keeps them from moving and allows fusion to develop.

Spine surgery helped Kent and Brenda McEvers return to the things they love
Thanks to successful spine surgery, Kent and Brenda McEvers are again enjoying road-trip adventures.

Kent was moved to a patient room. Within two hours, he was up out of bed and walking to the restroom.

"It was amazing," he says. "I could actually pick up my leg and walk unassisted. I'd only been able to walk with a cane, scooting my foot along. I still felt numbness in my left fingers, but I could raise my right arm to brush my teeth. Just hours earlier, I could not do that."

Kent had been advised to expect a stay in inpatient rehabilitation. But, upon evaluation, the rehab team had other thoughts.

"They came in and saw me and said, 'Do we have the right room?'" Kent says. "I could walk, move my arms and legs, climb stairs and get in and out of a simulated car. 'You don't qualify for rehab,' they told me. 'You don't need it!'"

Dr. Hylton, Kent recalls, had a similar reaction.

"He hadn't seen me since I'd been hobbling around and hardly able to shake his hand," Kent says. "He looked at me with a blank look on his face and in total silence. 'See?' I said to him. 'You don't even know how great a doctor you are!'"

"It was all about the exam," Dr. Hylton says. "Too often, workups are done based on patient complaints, but too little time is spent on an objective exam. Patients are here for our expertise. It is our responsibility to be thorough and accurate and provide the care that achieves the best possible quality of life."

Back in action

Kent was advised to get moving, to avoid heavy lifting or straining, but to stand, walk, raise his arms and legs and get his nerves firing. Just 6 weeks later, his balance, equilibrium and ability to walk had all improved dramatically. He visits a gym daily and works out with a physical trainer.

"Dr. Hylton is a fabulous person and a wonderful doctor," Kent says. "The nurses in the office are super people, as are the hospital nurses. Everyone who helped me was fantastic."

Next up for Kent and Brenda: Estes Park, Colorado, and another state sticker for their map.