As published in the Arizona Republic
Two years after an auto accident smashed two discs in her spine, Patti Nellesen, then 51, was still bedridden and sedated around the clock with painkillers. Doctors considered back surgery too risky due to her history of polio and scoliosis.
With her left leg in a brace from the polio and a destabilized right leg from damage to her spine, she faced an uncertain future. Then she was referred to Anthony T. Yeung, a Phoenix orthopedic surgeon.
Yeung specializes in minimally-invasive spinal surgery as an alternative to traditional open-back surgery. He designed the Yeung Endoscopic Spine SurgeryTM (YESS) system that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997.
The outpatient procedure utilizes a small 1/4-inch incision, which causes less tissue destruction, allows for quicker recovery, faster rehabilitation, less time off from work and less pain medicine requirements.
Orthopedic surgeons from around the world travel to his surgical facility at the Arizona Institute for Minimally Invasive Spine Care — a full-service, one-stop spine care facility with a team of medical professionals — to learn the procedure.
“I was told I must live with my pain,” Nellesen said. “But when Dr. Yeung saw me last July, he didn’t see my polio. He saw only my injured back.”
After her discogram showed severe damage to the discs, Yeung scheduled her for endoscopic surgery. However, her insurance company deemed the proposed procedure “experimental” and denied her claim. She opted to forge ahead alone.
After her surgery, she walked out of the outpatient facility a new woman.
“My functionality was improved 110 percent right away,” she said. “Dr. Yeung calls me his ‘miracle babe,’.” she said with a smile. “He’s the miracle. He gave me back my life.”
Yeung has dedicated his innovative medical career to his mother who was left permanently disabled after traditional surgery to repair a disc 30 years ago. He has striven to find a better, less invasive way to get the job done and has performed the minimally invasive surgery on more than 2,000 patients.
Arizona Blue Cross/Blue Shield was the first to cover the endoscopic procedure. However, some insurance companies and physicians trained only in the open surgical technique remain skeptical.
Doctors from around the country who have come to Yeung for their back surgeries have a different point of view.
John Badalamenti, a Wisconsin physician specializing in interventional pain management, turned to Yeung for endoscopic spine surgery after refusing to undergo traditional decompression and fusion for incapacitating back pain. Amazed by the results of his surgery, he has now joined Yeung’s practice in Phoenix.
Badalamenti’s expertise in relieving back pain through non-operative means complements Yeung’s full-service treatment center at the institute.
Dr. Christopher Kauffman, assistant clinical professor of orthopedic spine surgery at the University of California San Diego, also chose Yeung’s endoscopic procedure over traditional surgery. He suffered from an L5/S1 herniated disc that caused severe pain in his back and buttocks.
“Dr. Yeung offered me a chance to preserve normal anatomy,” Kauffman said. “The morning after surgery, my pain was completely gone. Two days after surgery, I was only taking Tylenol for soreness. In traditional surgery, I would have been taking narcotics for four to six weeks with a much longer recovery period.”
Kauffman believes that endoscopic spinal surgery will eventually be more widely accepted.
“While the older spine surgeons are reluctant to learn the new procedure, more and more young physicians are training to do endoscopic spinal surgery in addition to traditional surgery,” he said.
Yeung only has to look at his son Christopher to see the change.
Christopher Yeung is a fellowship-trained spine surgeon who has recently joined the practice. After learning from his father, Christopher now performs endoscopic as well as traditional spinal surgeries.
Former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Bruce Mathison knows first-hand about both. He still remembers the long recovery, intensive therapy, training sessions and painkillers after going under the knife to repair a herniated disc in 1988.
Today, a few months after Christopher Yeung performed endoscopic surgery on recurrent herniation in the same disc, he tells a remarkably different story.
“Thanks to Dr. Yeung, I have no more pain and no scarring,” Mathison said.
“But the best part of all was that I was back on the road at 10:45 a.m., stopped at Cracker Barrel for breakfast, and was out coaching high school football that afternoon,” he said. “I just wish I could have done it the first time around.”
The elder Yeung made an appeal to back pain sufferers.
“I appreciate the people who come to me first before they commit to traditional surgery,” he said. “I want them to know that if their condition can be diagnosed and treated, they have a whole spectrum of options. Then they can decide the best option for themselves.”