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Hoops hero Bill Walton bounces back from crushing spinal condition

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October 8, 2013, 5:28 pm

One of the most dominant big men in college and professional basketball for 16 years, Bill Walton finally came up against an opponent in 2007 that very nearly took him out of the game of life. Walton says his spine “failed and collapsed,” and the pain had him contemplating suicide.

“I spend hours every day on the phone, face to face and on the Internet with people convincing them that there is a better way back into the game of life because suicide is a huge problem with spine patients,” said Walton, who’s now a paid spokesman for The Better Way Back, a nonprofit patient support and education program funded by medical device company NuVasive.

Bill Walton spine surgery

Basketball legend Bill Walton says a new spine surgery technique saved his life.

NuVasive officials cite Mayo Clinic stats that one in 10 Americans suffers from the effects of chronic back pain, which translates to more than 500,000 Coloradans. The state recorded its highest number of suicide deaths ever in 2012 (1,053) and now has one of the highest rates in the nation (eighth). Experts say one factor is chronic pain and a feeling of hopelessness.

An ESPN basketball analyst with an oversized personality and a penchant for upbeat, colorful and sometimes controversial commentary, Walton saw it all fall apart six and a half years ago when his spine gave out on him.

Over the next two years, the now 60-year-old counterculture hoops hero from the 70s who estimates he’s attended 835 Grateful Dead shows (including Red Rocks), says he actually would have been grateful to be dead.

“Spine issues are one of the leading factors in our suicide problem because it’s just so hard, and this has been the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life,” Walton said. “I was terrified.”

In February of 2009, after two years of trying everything from acupuncture to spinal injections with no success, Walton had a relatively new surgical procedure called XLIF(eXtreme Lateral Interbody Fusion) that restored full mobility and returned him to a pain-free life with no medication. ESPN brought the two-time college and NBA champion back last season as an analyst for Pac-12 college games.

“With success, with privilege comes responsibility, duty and opportunity,” said Walton, who adds that approximately 70 percent of the population experiences some kind of back pain at some point in their life and that more than 10 million Americans suffer from chronic back pain. “Because I’ve gotten all better, I have a responsibility [to educate and advocate].”

Vail-Summit Orthopaedics spine surgeon Dr. Greg Poulter, who performs the XLIF procedure but did not work on Walton, is among an estimated 10 to 15 percent of spine surgeons nationwide performing XLIF. Poulter says spine surgery suffers from a very bad reputation because of the outdated technology and techniques of the past.

The work on the spine itself remains largely the same, it’s all about how the spine is accessed with XLIF, Poulter adds.

Walton had debris cleaned up in and around his spine, his spine was straightened, pressure was taken off the nerves that were being compressed and causing him leg and back pain, and then his spine was stabilized with screws, rods, a cage and spacers.

To do all that, surgeons went in through his side instead of making massive, foot-long incisions either on his back, which would have required cutting muscle and a lengthy recovery, or his abdomen, which means moving intestines, the aorta and other internal organs.

“The problem with spine surgery is oftentimes you would do more damage than good,” Poulter said. “Sure, the spine would be fixed, but people would be so weak from having the large abdominal incision or a big incision down their back that they wouldn’t get that much better.”

Because of mixed results in the past, Poulter said many people suffering from debilitating back pain wouldn’t even consider surgery.

“I’m not necessarily trying to sign people up but just let them know that if they get to a point where maybe others have told them they can’t be helped, there’s a chance they could be helped, and if you can take someone who was in Bill Walton’s situation and turn it around for them where they can be active again, that’s a big reason why we all go into medicine is to try to help people out.”

Poulter compares XLIF to the revolution in knee surgery 20 years ago when doctors went from opening up the knee with a big incision and flipping back the kneecap to going in and doing everything arthroscopically. XLIF uses a retractor, or a small tube that allows surgeons to go in through the side and work on the spine, fusing discs and un-pinching nerves.

On its website, The Better Way Back cites “a variety of challenges that threaten patient healthcare” in the spine industry — chief among them, “insurance payer pushback and denials.” But Poulter says that, in his practice at least, that has not been a problem.

“If someone is in enough pain and has the kinds of problems that could be fixed with the surgery, if we think an XLIF is a good fit for them, I haven’t had any problems getting that approved for insurance,” Poulter said.

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David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environment, sports and outdoor writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as the The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, SKI, SKIING, Powder, People, LA Weekly and the Huffington Post.

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