Spine Surgery, Pain Management and Quality of Life

Tom Shaw and Wife

September 04, 2019

In 1985, Tom Shaw was an athletic, optimistic high school sophomore in Enid, Oklahoma. At just 16, he was already being recruited by many college football programs.

Then he was in a terrible car accident, smashing into an embankment. He and his family were told that he would never walk again.

“You don’t know Tom,” said his family.

After a 14-hour operation, weeks in a hospital and rehab facility, Tom hobbled out with braces up to his hips and crutches under his arm. But just six months after surgery, he required another.

Spine specialists

A year later, the Shaw family moved to Ellsworth, Kansas. When the family learned about the spine experts at The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, they decided to make the three-hour drive. They met with two of the most prominent, well-respected orthopedic surgeons in the nation, Marc A. Asher, MD, and Raymond Jacobs, MD.

It was the beginning of a healthcare relationship that would last for the next 32 years – and counting.

A year after Tom’s horrific accident, Drs. Jacobs and Asher performed his third spine surgery, his first here. After one final surgery in November of 1986, Tom’s condition greatly improved.

When he graduated from high school six months later, he walked across the stage to accept his diploma without any support except for one ankle and foot brace. His classmates didn’t expect to see him without a wheelchair, crutches or cane.

They didn’t know Tom.

Exceptional care

Tom praises all the orthopedic surgeons at The University of Kansas Health System. “I’m very fortunate and blessed that I landed here, and these physicians took care of me,” he says.

In fact, the health system’s Marc A. Asher, MD, Comprehensive Spine Center is named in honor of Tom’s orthopedic surgeon. It’s staffed with highly trained spine specialists who treat everything from spine tumors to spinal conditions or injuries. The spine team sees patients with some of the most complex conditions in the region.

When Dr. Asher retired in 2002, Douglas C. Burton, MD, took over his care. Tom walked well, with occasional balance issues. “His recovery is testament to his strong will,” says Dr. Burton. “Many people would have thrown in the towel. He stuck with it.

”According to Dr. Burton, every spinal cord injury is different. “We’re a Level I Trauma Center, the largest in the region,” he says. “We take care of a tremendous number of patients with spinal injuries. Some patients can achieve a significant recovery. But if the injury is bad enough, it doesn’t matter how perfect the procedures are or how expert the surgeons are.”

Tom is classified as a partial paraplegic. He has full use of his left leg with some areas of numbness. He has partial use of his right hip but is paralyzed from the right knee down and wears an ankle-foot orthosis to hold that ankle and foot in place.

He hasn’t required another spinal surgery in 32 years.

Persistence pays off again

On the day of Tom’s first surgery at The University of Kansas Health System, he met a nurse named Kim Haynes.

When he was discharged, he asked Kim if he could write her. She was a few years older than Tom and thought of him as a friend. She said he could write and figured she’d never hear from him.

Kim didn’t know Tom.

“Over the years, he wrote me now and then,” she says. “He told me about getting married and having kids. I wrote back a few times. Occasionally, he would call out of the blue and we’d chat.”

In 2006, Tom called Kim and said he was getting a divorce. He asked if she wanted to get together. Kim refused. But he kept calling. Then in 2007, he called and invited her to dinner. The timing was finally right.

The couple married in 2009. “Every day, Kim and I say how blessed we are to have each other,” Tom says.

Living without pain meds

After a serious spine injury, it’s common for physicians to prescribe pain medicine. And it’s common for patients with chronic pain to continue taking those pain meds for years. Tom took a variety of painkillers for 32 years.

“I followed my doctor’s orders like clockwork,” he says. “I never abused or overused the pills.”

Tom and Kim wondered what his pain would be like without medication. “I really didn’t know what my base pain level was,” he says.

He met with psychiatrist and pain management specialist Teresa Long, MD, at The University of Kansas Health System. “Tom was not interested in continuing opiate therapy but wasn’t sure how to go about discontinuation,” she says. “He was physically dependent on opioids, but didn’t show evidence of opiate-use disorder (addiction).”

She recommended he decrease his methadone dosage slowly. And she prescribed a nonaddictive medication to help control the symptoms of withdrawal.

Today, he is free from opioids and methadone. “The difference is amazing,” he says. “I feel like I can breathe. I can exercise longer and I’ve lost 22 pounds. My thinking is so much clearer.”

Dr. Long strongly discourages patients from abruptly stopping opioids on their own. “Those who are genetically vulnerable to opioid-use disorder can become addicted in just one month,” she says. “They may require medication-assisted treatment for longer term management or to safely taper off the drugs.”

Patients who are taking opioids and wish to discontinue them should seek guidance from their prescribing doctor. Or contact The University of Kansas Health System’s outpatient addiction clinic.

Tom's ride

Tom began working with a personal trainer and set a new goal – completing a 50-mile bike ride.

But he doesn’t ride a typical bike. Tom can’t pedal with his feet and legs, so he uses a handcycle that has three wheels and sits low to the ground. He propels the bike by “pedaling” with his hands.

Tom believes his life has come full circle. “I used to wonder why the accident happened to me. At almost 50, I know,” he says. “I wouldn’t be married to Kim. I wouldn’t be writing my book. I wouldn’t be doing this bike ride. I understand that’s my job now. That’s my gift – to help other people.”

Kim has proudly watched Tom’s transformation from a broken teenager to a resilient man. When acquaintances questioned whether he would be able to finish a grueling 50-mile hand bike ride in one day, she just smiled.

“You don’t know Tom,” she responded.

Stepping forward

On August 18, Tom biked 50 miles on area trails and raised more than $12,000 for the Steps of Faith Foundation, a nonprofit helping those without insurance gain access to prosthetics.

Since his August ride, he has continued to compete in the hand-crank division of several bike rides.

“I’m getting a bike more suited to racing and I’m going to attempt to participate in the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan,” he says. “At almost 50, I believe I can compete.”

Doubt him?

Obviously, you don’t know Tom.

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