Cleave McKeller

As Cleave McKeller fields a ground ball and throws it to first base while playing softball, you might find it pretty hard to believe less than two years earlier McKeller could not even bend down to tie his shoe. After a lifechanging spinal procedure at Flagstaff Medical Center, McKeller is fit and agile and back in the game.

For more than 15 years, McKeller lived with debilitating back pain that radiated down his legs, causing a painful throbbing sensation that accompanied almost any movement. McKeller finally turned to a surgical remedy and now enjoys a new outlook on life.

“Before I came to Flagstaff Medical Center for surgery, I could only walk about half a block before I’d have to sit down and rest,” McKeller said. “The nerves in my back were being pinched and damaged, and the pain was truly unbearable.”

After undergoing an imaging scan to view his spine, McKeller learned he was suffering from two compressed discs, a condition known as spinal stenosis. Occurring in as many as half a million Americans each year, spinal stenosis is a degenerative occurrence that can develop as a person ages. Many patients like McKeller view this occurrence as an inevitable side effect of growing older – but thanks to FMC’s Spine and Joint Surgery Center, McKeller found he didn’t need to settle for a life of pain and physical restrictions.

The Spine and Joint Surgery Center McKeller underwent a laminectomy – to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.

“I chose FMC’s Spine and Joint Surgery Center because I knew they offered the best and most professional care in the area,” McKeller said. “They went over everything so thoroughly that I always had a great understanding of my surgery and rehabilitation.”

Ensuring that patients are educated and stay informed is one of the fundamental aspects of the program, and it begins with a spine surgery class offered to patients who are about to undergo surgery.

“In the spine class, our main goal is to talk to patients and their families about their procedure so they are less anxious about the surgery,” said Donna Wulf, R.N., charge nurse at FMC’s Spine and Joint Surgery Center. “We also believe that knowing what to expect after surgery is an important aspect on the road to recovery.”

The Spine and Joint Surgery Center is a dedicated unit at FMC that utilizes a “wellness model,” in which each patient is put on the road to recovery and independence. Both the patient and the patient’s family play a key role in rehabilitation. In McKeller’s case, this involved regular visits with physical therapists to help restore his activity while reducing any pain associated with the surgery.

Regaining Independence
“We ask a family member to take on the role of a coach for their loved one who had a procedure,” said Alex Alexander, R.N., clinical coordinator of the Spine and Joint Surgery Center. “Coaches help keep patients motivated and help them with their post-surgery exercises—both in the hospital and when they return home.”

A multi-disciplinary team helps patients focus on recovery and rehabilitation, which begins soon after surgery.

“The physical therapist was encouraging as I got out of bed the next day,” McKeller said. “They gave me so much support and encouragement, I was able to get out of bed by myself and walk—and I’ve been walking ever since.”

Today, McKeller rides his bicycle between 20 and 50 miles at a time on the Peavine and Iron King trails in Prescott. A volunteer park ranger, McKeller also hikes and walks trails in Prescott, checking for damage and needed repairs. This spring, he’ll be playing on his softball league for adults aged 70 and older.

“The physicians and staff at FMC are miracle workers,” McKeller said. “I feel 100 percent better than I ever could have imagined. My hat’s off to them.”