Erick Brandt, a machinist, has made a career out of fixing broken machines.
So when University of Minnesota Health Orthopaediac Surgeon Chris Martin, MD, explained how surgery could correct Brandt’s pinched spinal cord and reverse his rapid descent toward quadriplegia, Brandt understood immediately. His spine was just another machine that needed a fix.
And the fix worked. After the surgery, Brandt went from a wheelchair to walking. Six weeks after surgery, he was once again puttering around in his machine shop—one of his favorite activities.
“Dr. Martin knew we had to do something or I was going to become permanently disabled,” Brandt said. “He was a lifesaver for me. I have no words to express what he’s done for me other than to say that it was a miracle.”
Brandt’s movement problems were caused by severe cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM). CSM is a degenerative condition which occurs when wear-and-tear on the spine causes the spinal cord to become compressed. That compression interferes with nerve signals, eventually impairing movement in a patient’s arms and legs.
“Basically, he had a type of arthritis in the spine,” said Martin, an orthopaedic and spine surgery specialist. “That arthritis leads to bone spurs and bulging discs, and if those bone spurs and bulging discs get big enough, they start to pinch the spinal cord. When the spinal cord is pinched, that can lead to nerve damage.”
Brandt had started to notice something was changing in the summer of 2017. Following a bad fall in June, he started losing feeling in his hands, then his arms and then it eventually spread to his legs.
“I eventually couldn’t walk or dress myself. I couldn’t even pull a t-shirt over my head,” he said.
After seeking care at Smiley’s Family Medicine Clinic in Minneapolis, Brandt was eventually referred to Martin. After assessing Brandt, Martin knew he would need surgery soon to prevent permanent impairments. If left untreated, the condition can lead to quadriplegia, Martin said.
In October 2017, Martin successfully performed surgery on Brandt. The procedure relieved pressure on Brandt’s spinal cord by increasing the available space around the cord.
Thanks to Martin’s intervention, Brandt is now moving again and back out in his shop, working again with the help of a neighbor who does the heavy lifting.
“He’s made a dramatic improvement,” Martin said. “I think he will keep getting better over time, too. When you take the pressure off the spinal cord, there’s some capacity for further healing.”
Since his surgery, Brandt said, he has been intensely focused on his physical therapy and regaining his range of motion. Each day, he notices incremental improvement and he harnesses that progress to keep getting better. He can once again dress himself and feed himself, he said.
“I’m going to do what it takes to get moving. It’s all attitude,” he said. “I’m not going to be sitting in a chair the rest of my life.”
He also thanked the nurses at University of Minnesota Medical Center for helping him get back on his feet following the surgery: “The staff always had a smile, they were Johnny-on-the-spot. This care was as good as [the care] your own mother would’ve given you,” he said.
Until CSM impaired his movement, Brandt had rarely stayed still. By his account, he has lived a fast-paced, adventurous life and always thought he would burn out young.
At 72, he’s still here, and he wants to keep moving.
“I lived my life burning the candle at both ends because I expected I wouldn’t live past 40,” he said. “I’ve traveled the world; I never said no to anything; I have no regrets. I’ve had a good life and I’m not about to quit.”