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Neurosurgeon performs risky spinal surgery to keep 62-year-old paralyzed

A neurosurgeon has been praised by Surgeons: At the Edge of Life viewers for his “overwhelming courage and precision” after saving a 62-year-old man from paralysis during a high-risk spinal surgery.

Colin, from Wiltshire, appeared on the BBC2 documentary series last night and explained how he struggled to walk due to a hernia deep in the spine that was pressing on the spinal cord.

Despite concerns about performing perhaps the most difficult spinal surgery, Rodney Laing, of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, was able to remove the disc safely and Colin was able to leave the hospital unaided.

After the surgery, an emotional Colin said: ‘He’s a great man, I just feel the doors have really opened for the rest of my life and I can move forward.

“While at first I thought it was going to be a very difficult future, it’s a new phase in my life, thank you.”

Viewers were quick to praise Laing for his “incredible power of skill, concentration and ingenuity.”

A neurosurgeon has been praised by Surgeons: At the Edge of Life viewers for his 'stunning courage and precision' after he saved Colin, 62, of Wiltshire from being paralyzed during a high-risk spinal surgery (pictured)

A neurosurgeon has been praised by Surgeons: At the Edge of Life viewers for his ‘stunning courage and precision’ after he saved Colin, 62, of Wiltshire from being paralyzed during a high-risk spinal surgery (pictured)

Rodney Laing, of Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, performed an 11-hour procedure on Colin and was able to safely remove the entire disc, allowing Colin to leave the hospital unaided (pictured)

Rodney Laing, of Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, performed an 11-hour procedure on Colin and was able to safely remove the entire disc, allowing Colin to leave the hospital unaided (pictured)

Rodney Laing, of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, performed an 11-hour procedure on Colin and was able to safely remove the entire disc, allowing Colin to leave the hospital unaided (pictured)

After reaching the disc, the surgeon had to remove it millimeter by millimeter without disrupting the umbilical cord and risking leaving Colin paralyzed

After reaching the disc, the surgeon had to remove it millimeter by millimeter without disrupting the umbilical cord and risking leaving Colin paralyzed

After reaching the disc, the surgeon had to remove it millimeter by millimeter without disrupting the umbilical cord and risking leaving Colin paralyzed

The patient of Dr. Laing, Colin, had difficulty walking nine months before surgery and was eventually diagnosed with a herniated disc in the thoracic or middle spine.

“I would notice a few things have changed,” he said. ‘I went for a run, [my wife] Jan was driving back from grocery shopping and stopped and said, “What’s going on?”

“I said, ‘I can’t run anymore’ and then I started looking at my legs and noticed that my right thigh was half the size of my left thigh.”

Colin was devastated to discover that if left untreated, he could eventually become paralyzed from the waist down and lose control of his bladder and bowel function.

Viewers were quick to praise Laing for his 'incredible power of skill, concentration and ingenuity'

Viewers were quick to praise Laing for his 'incredible power of skill, concentration and ingenuity'

Viewers were quick to praise Laing for his ‘incredible power of skill, concentration and ingenuity’

How do hernias develop and are they dangerous?

A hernia is when a soft cushion of tissue pushes out between the bones in your spine.

It is painful when it presses on the nerves. It usually gets better slowly with rest, gentle exercise, and pain medications.

But in extreme cases, when patients have not improved with other treatments, surgery is needed or the hernia worsens muscle weakness, or surgery for numbness is required.

What causes a hernia?

They can happen because of:

  • Aging
  • Training too hard
  • Lifting heavy objects incorrectly
  • Vibrations from driving or operating machines
  • Being inactive or overweight

Source: NHS

He became emotional as he went on to describe the impact his condition had on his life, saying, ‘I used to describe myself as being appropriate for my age, I’m kind of handicapped by it.

‘I can’t do much, I can’t do much. I don’t pick up my grandchildren in case I fall, that’s one of the worst things.”

Determined to get his condition treated, Colin sought out a surgeon who could remove the disc.

However, due to the high risk of paralysis during the procedure, surgeons were reluctant to take on Colin’s case — with some caution that they had paralyzed patients while performing the same surgery.

Fortunately, Colin discovered that Laing, who had been appointed Consultant Neurosurgeon at Addenbrookes Hospital in 1995, with an interest in spinal neurosurgery, was willing to undergo the procedure.

Laing was not without his inhibitions, however, admitting that while spinal surgery always carries “significant risks,” the procedure Colin had to undergo is one of the riskiest.

“All surgeons must be obsessive,” he said. “Neurosurgeons may be more obsessive than others because there is no such thing as a straightforward spinal surgery. All these interventions involve significant risks.

‘I’ve been doing them for 20-30 years now and I think this is the most difficult operation I do in neurosurgery

“In my mind it’s always a thought that one wrong move can lead to paralysis. I always think that just the vibration of the drill can be enough to tip the balance in an irreversible way, so it’s not a relaxing procedure.”

During the challenging operation, the surgeon was forced to enter through the side of the chest and work deep into the body, avoiding crucial nerves and blood vessels as he made his way up the spine to reach the hernia.

Colin became emotional as he continued to describe the impact of his condition, saying he felt 'disabled' by the hernia

Colin became emotional as he continued to describe the impact of his condition, saying he felt 'disabled' by the hernia

Colin became emotional as he continued to describe the impact of his condition, saying he felt ‘disabled’ by the hernia

Colin started having trouble walking nine months before surgery and was eventually diagnosed with a hernia in the thoracic or middle spine (Pictured, an X-ray showing the hernia)

Colin started having trouble walking nine months before surgery and was eventually diagnosed with a hernia in the thoracic or middle spine (Pictured, an X-ray showing the hernia)

Colin started having trouble walking nine months before surgery and was eventually diagnosed with a hernia in the thoracic or middle spine (Pictured, an X-ray showing the hernia)

After reaching the disc, the surgeon had to remove it millimeter by millimeter without disrupting the umbilical cord and risking leaving Colin paralyzed.

“I often feel like I’m fighting the last bit of disc material,” Laing said before the surgery. “That it’s a battle of wills between me and him.

“I have to beat it and it has the upper hand because it knows that a wrong move on my part can have serious consequences.”

“But it’s not about me, it’s about Colin. I can remember the names of all the patients who I think have gotten worse in one way or another.”

After removing the disc in its entirety, the surgeon was finally able to take a break.

During the 11-hour surgery to remove the hernia, the surgeon was forced to enter through the side of the chest and work deep into the body, avoiding crucial nerves and blood vessels as he made his way up the spine.

During the 11-hour surgery to remove the hernia, the surgeon was forced to enter through the side of the chest and work deep into the body, avoiding crucial nerves and blood vessels as he made his way up the spine.

During the 11-hour surgery to remove the hernia, the surgeon was forced to enter through the side of the chest and work deep into the body, avoiding crucial nerves and blood vessels as he made his way up the spine.

After removing the disc in its entirety, the surgeon was finally able to take a break.  Pictured, the last piece of bone pressing on Colin's spinal cord after it has been removed

After removing the disc in its entirety, the surgeon was finally able to take a break.  Pictured, the last piece of bone pressing on Colin's spinal cord after it has been removed

After removing the disc in its entirety, the surgeon was finally able to take a break. Pictured, the last piece of bone pressing on Colin’s spinal cord after it has been removed

Reflecting on the successful procedure, he said: ‘I feel a mixture of relief and there is also a slight comical feeling, I’ve been messing around all day removing this little piece of bone.’

He added: “As I walk out of the operating room, the energy and focus that kept me going during the procedure disappears and you start to realize that you are quite tired.”

After 11 hours of surgery, Colin was taken to the intensive care unit and after a few days of recovery, it was clear that the operation had been successful.

dr. Laing said the patient “exceeded all his expectations.”

Looking back on the operation, he said, “I enjoy my job as much now as when I started. I could almost say that I enjoy it more.

After 11 hours Colin was taken to the intensive care unit and after a few days of recovery it was clear that the operation was a success

After 11 hours Colin was taken to the intensive care unit and after a few days of recovery it was clear that the operation was a success

After 11 hours Colin was taken to the intensive care unit and after a few days of recovery it was clear that the operation was a success

Colin is pictured with his wife Jan walking out of the hospital after the successful 11-hour spinal surgery

Colin is pictured with his wife Jan walking out of the hospital after the successful 11-hour spinal surgery

Colin is pictured with his wife Jan walking out of the hospital after the successful 11-hour spinal surgery

“I don’t think I’m ever completely turned off. I think it’s always there with you. For me, my work is a way of life, it’s something that requires dedication.”

Viewers quickly took to Twitter to praise the neurosurgeon, writing, “Incredible talent and courage to hold steady during 11-hour surgery @bbc Surgeons: At the Edge of Life.”

‘Surgeons: On the edge of life is great looking. The incredible power of skill, concentration and ingenuity,” said another.

A third commented: ‘Surgeons on the edge of life on BBC2…..hands down the most stunning, astonishing, skill and precision I’ve ever seen.’

‘Absolutely just mind blowing #surgeons surgeons on the edge of life on bbc2 another week which was fascinating and amazing to watch. Full of awe and amazement at what this doc’ wrote a fourth.

Surgeons: At the Edge of Life is available on BBCiPlayer

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