An expert team and a new robotic surgery system helped 76-year-old Judy walk without pain

Precision is key during delicate spinal surgeries. An M Health Fairview team used a new robotic surgical system to help 76-year-old Judy Kerry after years of debilitating back pain.

Diagnosed with spondylolisthesis and stenosis, Judy Kerry underwent spinal surgery at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Judy Kerry has struggled with back pain throughout her adult life. In spite of the difficulty, the 76-year-old Eagan resident kept active with fitness classes, yoga, and walking. But five years ago, the pain began to increase. Two years ago, a fall made everything worse.

“I was no longer able to walk for very long,” Kerry said. “I had lots of pain in my back and numbness down both legs, which made it hard to move around.”

Kerry tried a variety of measures, including changes to her daily activities, anti-inflammatory medication, and steroid injections. But nothing relieved her pain. So she met with M Health Fairview Neurosurgeon Matthew Hunt, MD, FRCS, FAANS.

A delicate surgery

After a careful review of Kerry’s medical history, diagnostic imaging, and a physical examination, Hunt found two issues. First, Kerry had stenosis – or narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on the spinal cord – in her lower back. She also had a condition called spondylolisthesis, which causes the bones of the spine to slip out of alignment.

“Spondylolisthesis makes stenosis worse, and it can also cause the spine to become unstable as things slide around,” Hunt said. “If you can fix the spondylolisthesis, you can make the stenosis better as well. That’s what we wanted to do for Judy.”

“Dr. Hunt said he could help me, and he told me that the surgery could be done robotically,” Kerry said. “I thought that was great. I trusted him.”

To fix Kerry’s spine, Hunt recommended two solutions. The first was a spinal decompression – a surgery that gives the spinal nerves more room and relieves painful pressure. The second was a spinal fusion. In a spinal fusion surgery, two or more vertebra are joined, or “fused,” into a single bone. Once it heals, the fused bone has strength and stability, at the cost of some spinal movement.

During a spinal fusion, surgeons add screws and rods to the spine to fuse the bones together. Accuracy is key during the surgery. The more precise the placement of the rods and screws, the better the overall outcome is likely to be.

That’s why Hunt chose to use the Mazor X Stealth Edition Robotics Guidance Platform, a robotic surgical system that increases surgical accuracy. The platform allows spinal surgeons to create detailed digital plans before each surgery, and then uses real-time 3D imagery paired with a robotic guided arm to help surgeons place spinal implants during delicate operations.

Robotic system boosts precision

In October 2020, Kerry became one of the first people to have robotic-assisted surgery with the Mazor system at M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital. In December 2020, M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center became the second hospital in the health system to get a Mazor system.

Robotic surgical systems, such as the da Vinci XI system, act as an extension of the surgeon’s hands.

The Mazor system is different in important ways, according to Hunt. “The Mazor’s primary function is to hold an instrument along a focused trajectory. As the surgeon, I do the same work I would have done without the robot, but the robot acts as a guide to ensure the best placement for the screws, rods, and pins, so that they go into the bone at exactly the correct angle, and in precisely the right place, for each patient.”

Another advantage of spine surgery with the Mazor system is that it helps the surgeon to complete the procedure using minimally invasive surgical techniques. Minimally invasive surgery usually leads to less post-surgical pain and quicker recovery times for patients, which means people like Judy Kerry can get back on their feet faster.

After surgery, Kerry followed Hunt’s instructions for recovery, including physical therapy and at-home exercises. “I had no pain after surgery – the pain that had plagued me for years was gone. Two weeks after surgery, I was doing great.”

For Kerry, the surgery was life changing. “It’s a blessing to have my back and my legs back. I have no limits,” she said. “Dr. Hunt made a promise to me, and he kept that promise. I’m excited about being back to normal. I’m very happy with how it turned out.”

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