Darrell and Chris McGregor at the beachDarrell McGregor has generally always taken his mobility for granted until one day, he couldn't. The active 68-year old works as a lumberyard manager, plays vigorously with his grandkids, and is an avid, lifetime hunter. In fact, it was on a hunting day last fall that Darrell thought he suffered a slight injury. He remembers stepping in a hole and feeling like he jarred his neck. Over the next few days, things took a turn.

"I had trouble walking, and it was getting progressively worse," Darrell says. "At work, I could hardly grab a pencil. It was like my brain was not telling my body what to do."

Darrell's wife Chris made an appointment with their long-time family physician Edward Jansen, M.D., at Providence Medical Group – Hawks Prairie Internal Medicine. They scheduled an appointment that same day, and after ruling out what might have been stroke symptoms, Dr. Jansen ordered a brain/spine MRI to asses other neurological problems.

Chris remembers Dr. Jansen's concern when he called Darrell at work. "He first told Darrell the good news - you have a brain!" Chris jokes. ''And his brain was clear, but there was a problem in his spine. Dr. Jansen recognized that it was serious." They cancelled Darrell's appointment with a neurologist and went directly to a neurosurgeon - Sheila Smitherman M.D., at Providence Medical Group - Southwest Washington Neurosurgery.

Dr. Smitherman conducted an exam, reviewed Darrell's films and watched him walk. "Darrell's injury was serious," Dr. Smitherman says. "The MRI showed severe spinal compression that could only be relieved by surgery, and delaying would have caused permanent loss of mobility. Surgery is always a hard decision, but Darrell's other choice was quadriplegia."

The urgency was a surprise to Darrell and Chris, but they trusted Dr. Smitherman. "I could have ended up in a wheelchair," Darrell says. Within a month from the first appointment with Dr. Jansen, Darrell arrived at the hospital for surgery.

Spinal surgery is among the most delicate and complex of all surgical procedures because it requires the surgeon to work around the spinal cord and critical nerves, inside an extremely narrow anatomical space. Spinal cord decompressive surgery is not a new procedure; Dr. Smitherman says it's been in the neurosurgeons' wheelhouse for decades. What is new are advances in medical technology that make these delicate surgeries much safer.

"We now use stereotactic navigation equipment while operating; it's sort of like GPS for the spine," she says. "We're getting 2-D and 3-D images in real time, during the surgery. We're working around the artery that serves the brain, so stroke is a risk. But with this technology, we can see with 100 percent accuracy where we're placing hardware in relation to vital structures. Done this way, neurosurgery is safer than ever before."

In addition to the decompression, Darrell needed spinal fusion to link together and reinforce his injured vertebrae. Here, screws and rods are placed in bone, "like rebar in a concrete building," Dr. Smitherman says. After his successful surgery, Darrell's spine was decompressed and reinforced, preventing further compression and symptoms in the future.

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