Indianapolis Spine Surgeon Uses Groundbreaking New Drills in Operating Room
Harry Webster was in the wrong line of work for a man with disc degeneration.
“I was in the bottled water business as a sales manager, service manager, and I'd go out and work with the team and I'd carry ... you're talking 44 pounds a bottle of five-gallon water, and I carried three at a time. So, I wasn't doing myself any services,” recalled Webster.
That stress on his spine led to a pair of back-to-back surgeries within 13 months between 2003 and 2004. “I had 35% of my disc blew out in my spine and paralyzed me,” Webster said, “basically, from the waist down. I had emergency surgery and fixed it.
His discectomy—a type of minimally invasive surgery designed to fix a disc in the lower back using small incisions—held for the next nine years. That span, however, was not trouble-free as Webster endured a pair of surgeries to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Still working in sales in water distribution, a position where he racked up 30,000 miles a year behind the wheel, Webster began feeling some familiar aches.
Despite grinning and bearing it and taking a new position that got him off the road, his pain intensified.
“I started to develop more back pain, and it started running down my right leg and into my foot with numbness and tingling. And I knew exactly what it was,” he said, recalling the growing intensity of his pain. “I couldn't even walk, and I mean when you walk, you'd walk 50 feet, and your back would hurt, and you'd have to bend over and crack it to reset it a little bit.”
Webster called OrthoIndy looking for a spine surgeon that wasn’t “going to talk nice and do some of these ergonomic things.” He wanted a straight-shooting health care professional who would “just fix it.” He got Dr. Greg Poulter, a spine surgeon of 13 years, practicing in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“I was able to become involved in his care when he was having trouble with his back. He had a couple of things occurring in his spine. He had a chronic problem of stress fractures in his back, pars defects, which can result in a slipped vertebra or a spondylolisthesis. This is a common condition. His vertebrae had slipped and resulted in a pinched nerve that had been giving him trouble for years. And it was getting worse. It's a severe enough problem that's interfering with his ability to work, to be upright, to walk any distances,” said Poulter.
Poulter informed Webster that his back pain was a result of structural damage, meaning the problem was pressure on the nerve from a herniated disc caused by a bone slipping.
“I was able to consult with him and say that there is a good surgical fix for this. But it required a fusion. We couldn't simply go in and unpinch the nerve if his spine had a slippage. We had to rebuild a portion of a spine,” said Poulter, who then mentioned performing the surgery with robotic assistance. “I think it's more elegant. I think it's safer.”
“Robotic-assisted spine surgery is a technology in which you can plan out a surgery ahead of time within a software format … down to the millimeter,” said Pouter. “It's created a safer surgery and more elegant surgery and less invasive surgery.”
Much of the elegance and precision exciting to Pouter can be attributed to the speed of the drill, which reaches speeds of 75,000 rpm. For reference, the fastest hand drill sold at Home Depot is a Milwaukee Drywall Screwdriver which reaches top speeds of 4,000 rpm.
“It's just incredibly fast, and it provides a machine type accuracy to robotics. It's hard to explain why that's so big, but it's that accuracy to what we have planned to do that it allows us to achieve. It's a fundamental piece of how we do surgery safely with this new technology.”
During a spinal fusion procedure like Websters, Pouter would summon the device’s robotic arm for surgical assistance. “It’s almost like an extra hand in the operating room,” he said. The robotic arm is positioned to a very precise point over the patient. Pouter works through a guide to reach down to the bone and begin the work. “Typically, it's placing fixation screws in the spine for fusion surgery.”
Using the Medtronic surgical tools has not only provided more accurate surgeries but also quicker procedures with fewer chances of complications during and post-op.
“Whenever you go into surgery, there's a chance of a complication. And in spine surgery, one potential complication is misplaced hardware or encroachment on a nerve or encroachment on another important structure. That means less trauma, less blood loss, the risk of infections is dramatically lower, and a greater level of safety. This tool allows us to be precise, accurate, delicate in ways that are millimeter type precision that would exceed human capabilities without robotic assistance,” said Pouter. “I recommend that surgeons take the time to learn the technique appropriately. It's worth the effort. It's worth it for our patients.”
Webster concurs. And if you ask him, he might call it miraculous when considering 19 years of back pain and failed back surgeries all alleviated in part of a day.
“After the surgery, pain's gone, 100%,” he said. “It’s given me a quality of life [where] I could wake up with no pain, and that's all I care about.”