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When Jessica Roby woke up with severe neck pain one morning last year, she thought back to her days as a young, competitive diver. Neck pain was nothing new to Roby, who spiraled toward the water thousands of times with a force approaching 30 miles per hour. But this was a different and more intense kind of discomfort.
“I remember rolling out of bed and hearing a ‘pop’ and then felt pain radiating down my arm,” she recalled. Springboard to Relief At first, Roby’s inner athlete told her to just power through it. But the pain persisted to the point that she had to hold her arm over her head just to feel a touch of comfort. That is when the Northbrook resident sought the expertise of NorthShore Orthopaedic Institute and affiliated Surgeon Mark Mikhael, MD.
A CT scan confirmed that Roby’s neck pain would not be temporary—attributed to two large ruptured discs in her neck. Dr. Mikhael recommended spinal fusion surgery, but with a twist. He also offered Roby the opportunity to heal her injury by taking part in leading-edge stem cell research.
“I thought it would be exciting to be a part of this revolutionary study, and to have a surgeon who was innovative enough to use it,” said Roby, 49, a Glenbrook North High School physical education teacher and diving coach.
Stem Cell Trailblazer Since 2016, Dr. Mikhael has been studying the benefit of stem cells in boosting the ability of bones to fuse after spinal fusion surgery—particularly in the neck area.
Spinal fusion surgery first involves removing the damaged discs, and then uses surgical hardware and bone graft material to weld the vertebrae together. This eliminates movement between the affected vertebra, which stabilizes the spine and decreases pain.
“Through this study, we hope to determine if using these stem cells inside of bone promotes faster healing with better outcomes,” explained Dr. Mikhael, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
Taking the Plunge For Roby’s surgery last February, Dr. Mikhael removed the two ruptured discs and put in “plugs” made of bone filled with stem cell product to stimulate bone growth and healing around the area. A recent CT scan confirmed that the bones in her neck successfully fused. Roby said her pain is now gone and her strength is back to normal.
Although relatively new, the study results are promising with a 100 percent successful fusion rate, which Dr. Mikhael has confirmed through clinical surveys, CT scans and pre- and postoperative outcome measures.
Thrilled with her results, Roby has since returned to the pool and classroom, teaching fitness classes and serving as diving coach.
“I was a gymnast in high school and I dove in college so having neck and back issues is not a surprise, and I think that’s why I ignored it at first,” she said.
“What really impresses me about Jessica is the passion she has for her students,” added Dr. Mikhael. “It’s rewarding to see her able to continue these pursuits pain-free.”