At 6 feet 1 inch tall and 200 pounds, Tim Howard is fit, trim and always on the go. When he's not keeping up with his three young children, he's teaching public relations and communications classes on-site at California State University, Sacramento or at University of the Pacific. He also teaches online classes for the University of Memphis and does medical consulting for two clients.
However, when a nagging back problem suddenly grew drastically worse in 2013, Howard's get-up-and-go attitude almost got up and went. He began feeling numbness in his right leg and instability in his lower back. He also had trouble standing after he'd been sitting or vice versa. Over time, the pain grew almost unbearable. One day he went to wash his hands in a restaurant men's room and couldn't even bend forward enough to reach the sink.
"Eventually, it got the better of me," he says. Howard's doctor called spine surgeon Mark Hambly, M.D., and told him he had a patient that needed to be seen right away.
An MRI revealed the problem as spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra slips out of the proper position onto the vertebra below it. Dr. Hambly recommended anterior posterior spinal surgery, which involves accessing the spine from both the front and back of the body to more securely fuse the spine. During the six-hour procedure, a spine surgeon and thoracic surgeon work together to carefully move vessels and organs aside to access the out-of-place vertebra and move it back into place. At the same time, a piece of pelvic bone is harvested to use in shoring up the spine. The spine surgeon then enters through the patient's back. Titanium screws, a cadaver bone and the patient's own piece of pelvic bone are used to make the spine stable again.
Howard says he felt nervous before the surgery, yet he and his wife, Emily, appreciated meeting the entire surgical team. The anesthesiologist, especially, assured the Howards that he treats his patients like he's treating his own family. "That gave us peace that everything was going to be OK," Howard says.
When he awoke, Howard found himself hooked up to a number of instruments including a catheter, IV pole and compression cuffs around each leg to prevent blood clots. He says the staff were friendly and personable, attending to every detail of care. Yet when a physical therapist arrived the next day to help him walk for the first time, he tried his best to argue his way out of it.
"I was pleading with her to just let me sleep, but she kept insisting that the benefits would be worth it. It was a huge ordeal with all that equipment on, but with complete kindness and empathy she helped me get up, and we walked from the bed to the window and back. It was a huge accomplishment for me. In fact, I think that was the turning point of me recovering successfully," Howard says.
Howard's stay at the hospital included several more walks with Sutter's physical therapists, along with thorough education to help him develop independence again. He learned to get up from his bed by rolling to his side and pushing himself into a sitting position. He also learned the importance of "BLT," which stands for no bending, no lifting and no twisting. "This was good, sound advice to protect me. I'm someone who pushes himself. I needed to slow down," Howard says.
Howard was released from the hospital after three days. He had been told to plan for six months away from work, yet his recovery went so smoothly that he returned to teaching after only one week. Less than three months after surgery, he was walking more than a mile and making plans to increase low-impact activities such as swimming and yoga.
He remains thankful for the care that allowed him to return to his full, active life. "If the situation had continued, I might have run into severe complications with my legs. But by having the wonderful infrastructure, skilled hands and kind hearts of all who facilitated my care, I have improved my life for the better," Howard says.
After Howard returned home from surgery, he received a card from the Sutter Health staff, thanking him for allowing them to care for him. The tables should be turned, he says, because he's the most thankful one of all.