Robotic navigation assisted spine surgery helps Butte man get back on his feet

On most days, you can catch Rick Gelling walking two and a half miles or even three and a half miles, depending on the route he’s in the mood for.  He’s a 64-year-old Butte resident who walks with a cane but you wouldn’t be able to tell he’s had surgery on his spine only three months ago. 

“I think it worked pretty good because I was up walking the next morning. The day after that, I walked up and down the hall a lot — to the point where they told me I could go home,” Said Gelling. 

“By the five-week checkup, I was already walking 2, 2 and a half miles. So apparently I’m doing pretty well, from what they tell me.”

Gelling had degenerative back failure but he enjoys hunting, camping, fishing and spending time with his grandkids so he wasn’t about to let the pain slow him down. 

“Rick had fairly advanced degenerative changes in his lumbar spine — his low back — that he had been tolerating for a long time and trying to be very functional and continued to live an active, high-quality life, despite the issues he was having with his spine,” said Anthony Russo, MD.  

Russo is an orthopedic spine surgeon at St. James Healthcare in Butte. He says Gelling’s active lifestyle was very beneficial. 

“While he needed a fairly significant surgical intervention to help give him relief of all his degenerative changes that had accumulated over the decades, he still maintained a good physical fitness level that made him a good candidate for undergoing that degree of surgical intervention,” said Russo.

St. James Healthcare is equipped with robotic navigation to assist with complex spine surgeries. It helps surgeons do their work with a little more reliability and do it quicker which means less anesthesia time for the patient and decreased risk. 

The team gets a CT scan on the patient pre-operatively. They can then use that scan to develop a 3 dimensional model of the patient’s spine and then that model is loaded into the robotic navigation unit. That plan then allows the robot to know exactly where each individual vertebrae of the spine is in space and allows the surgical team to do their work with its guidance. 

Russo has had the robotic navigation device in his operating room for almost two years but Butte has been a referral center for very complex spine surgery for 13 years. 

“One of the cool things that’s happening here in Butte — which is something that I didn’t really expect to happen 13 years ago — was a fairly significant commitment to trying to provide the latest technology to the patients of southwest Montana,” said Russo. “There have been several providers here at St. James healthcare in several different sub-specialties, that have been very aggressive in trying to ensure that we’re providing the state of the art care with the state-of-the-art technology.”

Gelling was a mechanic for a little over 30 years until he injured his back. He said the way he needed to position his body while working would be hard on his body, as well as walking on concrete floors in boots. 

He’d had surgery on his back once before in 2007 for a herniated disc. 

“One of the true advantages of the robotic navigation unit is in patients who require revision surgery,” said Russo. 

“A lot of times in the primary surgery, a lot of the anatomy that is utilized to help guide placement of hardware into the spine, is disrupted. It was disrupted in the first surgery for a reason but now it’s no longer a reliable guide.”

The robotic navigation unit gives Russo and his team an extra perspective to be able see the patients’ spines beyond the surface anatomy.  Russo says it makes it significantly easier, less risky and quicker.  A quicker surgery is safer and easier to recover from.  

Gelling can attest to the smooth recovery.  In addition to his walks, he’s also been camping and riding ATV’s since his surgery.  He’ll show you pictures of a snow drift that’s still ten feet tall — even in June, and another on of a wolf track next to an elk track from the day he saw six wolves.  He loves Butte for its proximity to the outdoors and its friendly people. 

He knows the importance of prevention and learning how to move in a way that is safe for your body.

“You just have to watch how you move. I’ve hurt myself picking up a fork,” says Gelling “Actually, the last time I hurt my back bad, I picked up an ant. I know it sounds weird. We come back from camping. My wife found a spider in our trailer so we put it in a plastic jar and it was a black widow so I wanted to show the kids what it looked like so I put a hole in the top and to feed it, I bent over and picked up an ant.  I did it wrong and my back was messed up for two weeks.”

Russo says the majority of work he does in the orthopedic office is preventative work, to keep residents from needing surgery. 

“We live in a state where most of the residents really enjoy to do a lot of outdoor recreation. With that, a lot of our residents do a lot of fairly strenuous outdoor vocational jobs as well, such as ranching and mining and so forth.  These residents use their bodies as a tool. And utilizing your body as a tool for many, many years puts a significant amount of stress on your body which all rotates around the spine.  The years of accumulation of that stress leads to fairly significant degenerative changes,” says Russo.

Gelling recommends getting into the orthopedic office sooner than later.

“Don’t put it off too long because the longer you put it off, the more extensive it seems like it has to be. Doctor Russo did a great job, I believe,” said Gelling. “Everybody up there — they seem to give a damn. So I would say, yeah, go check it out.”

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