Instead of sitting down in his office one Tuesday morning, Larry Rooker, of Howards Grove, took a seat on his bicycle. He had retired four days earlier and celebrated with a retirement party over the Memorial Day weekend. An avid cyclist, he set out on familiar roads in Sheboygan County.

“I’d been on that road many times before,” Larry said. “You go up the hill, over the peak and down. As a biker, when you’re in an area you know, you get into these ‘zombie miles’ and just sort of zone out. I probably wasn’t looking up as far as I should’ve been when coming down the hill, but there weren’t any cones or flares. Then, I saw it for only a split second.”

Larry crashed into a semi truck unexpectedly stopped on the country road.

Embarrassed, he stood up quickly, but the sharp pain radiating from his neck urged him to lie back down. The truck driver — who had stopped his vehicle because he was lost — called 911. An ambulance took Larry to a local hospital where physicians deemed he needed more extensive care. Larry, remembering that a friend who had been in a car crash had a good outcome at the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network, chose to go to Froedtert Hospital. Since it was too foggy for Flight for Life, the ambulance transported him as gently as possible to Milwaukee. Upon arrival at the adult Level I Trauma Center at Froedtert Hospital, doctors were shocked but ultimately grateful for what they saw.

“The majority of people with an injury like Larry’s are paralyzed from the neck down at the scene,” said Shekar Kurpad, MD, PhD, neurosurgeon and MCW faculty member. “Larry was incredibly lucky he was not paralyzed.”

Diagnosing the Damage

Larry needed imaging to help physicians make a diagnosis and determine a course of action. As any wrong movement could result in paralysis, staff delicately moved him to the MRI platform to get the required scans. Larry, who is claustrophobic, knew he had to be brave and still. After the one hour and 40-minute MRI, Dr. Kurpad had a clearer picture of Larry’s neck.

“Dr. Kurpad said one of my vertebrae was destroyed and one had exploded,” Larry said. “If it imploded, I could have been paralyzed. Fortunately, he also told me he could put me back together.” With Larry’s spinal cord undamaged, the surgeons needed to work around it to connect Larry’s head back to his body while preserving his motor function and ability to feel.

“There were no bones connecting Larry’s head to his body,” Dr. Kurpad said. “His head was only connected by the muscles in his neck that surrounded his spinal cord. He was in a precarious position, and it was our job to ensure his safety.”

A Delicate, Complicated Surgery 

On the morning of surgery, Intensive Care Unit and surgical staff carefully turned Larry over to the prone position, with his spine perfectly aligned to prevent further damage. With his body stabilized in proper surgical position, the surgery began. Working first through the back of Larry’s neck, Dr. Kurpad redirected Larry’s broken spine and fused his neck vertebrae together, making sure to avoid the spinal cord. Five hours into the surgery, Larry was gingerly turned over to give Dr. Kurpad additional room to work — for another five hours.

“One of his breaks was too low to reach through the neck,” Dr. Kurpad said. “We needed the cardiac surgery team to open his chest so I could fix the broken vertebrae.”

Following successful surgery, Larry was immobilized in a halo device for several weeks to allow his spinal fusion to heal properly.

Dr. Kurpad understood the uniqueness of Larry’s injury and is grateful he could play a part in his care.

“I’ve actually ridden those same roads before, so I certainly identified with him,” Dr. Kurpad said. “It very well could have been me hitting a semi.”

Retirement Rescued

In the weeks after surgery, Larry worked with physical therapist Craig Schneider, DPT, at the Froedtert & MCW Orthopaedic, Sports and Spine Center in Menomonee Falls.

“Larry put in the hard work to get his quality of life back,” Schneider said. “His therapy was tailored to his goals and lifestyle. He wanted to golf and bike again, so we worked on the muscles in his neck that were compromised during his injury to make sure he could properly swing a golf club and that his head could support his bike helmet.”

“I retired at 60 to do things outdoors and it was nearly taken away from me on day one,” Larry said. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think of Dr. Kurpad and his surgical team, who have allowed me to live the quality of life I want to live. Dr. Kurpad is my hero.”

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