Back from the Brink: Will Returns to Life After Spine Surgery to Repair Damage from MRSA Infection

If you need evidence of just how quickly a person’s health outlook can change, look no further than arts lover and travel enthusiast Will Elwood, age 78. On a Sunday in June 2018, he felt fine. “On Monday, I felt like I had a little cold. I was chilled, and I decided not to attend a black-tie concert event that evening,” Will remembered. “On Tuesday, I had a fever of 104 and was on the verge of delirium.” Will didn’t know it at the time, but he was in a fight for his life against an attack of MRSA – a dangerous bacterial infection that is resistant to most antibiotics.

He was hospitalized for months with MRSA, which was rampaging throughout his body, including his spine. He was in the ICU on a ventilator, and he even flatlined twice. Once the infection finally receded, Will was left with debilitating back pain. “I was in terrible pain. I could not sit up, even to eat a meal. My only relief was in lying flat, and at the time, we didn’t know why,” Will said. He spent months in a non-Inova rehabilitation facility, where the back pain got worse and worse. Those were dark days for Will, who thought about giving up on life altogether.

“I didn’t know if I would ever be able to do anything other than lie on my back. I understood how some people give up. I had to make a conscious decision not to give up – not just for me, but for my family, friends and care team,” Will said.

In early 2019, Will consulted with neurosurgeon Andrew Fanous, MD, FAANS; a board certified neurosurgeon, Section Chief of Neurosurgery, Inova Alexandria Hospital, who is also fellowship trained in minimally invasive and complex spine surgery. Will wanted to find out what was causing the back pain – and whether there was any hope of a cure. “Will came to my office in extreme pain. He was not able to sit up to talk with me and had to lie down while we spoke,” Dr. Fanous said.

So, Dr. Fanous ordered diagnostic imaging of Will’s spine – and the answer to the mystery of Will’s back pain became clear. “Dr. Fanous looked at the scans and said, ‘Oh my goodness, three of your spinal discs are gone.’”

Now that the inflammation resulting from the MRSA infection had subsided, it was possible to see Will’s spine clearly on the scans. Dr. Fanous saw that, in addition to destroying Will’s spinal discs, the MRSA infection had eaten through several of his spinal bones, severely pinching the nerves and causing intense pain. After making this diagnosis, Dr. Fanous recommended surgery to restore the spine’s integrity and alignment, as well as to relieve the pressure on Will’s spinal nerves.

Will’s daughter, Stacy Green, accompanied him to the appointment. “My dad wanted to do anything he could to get out of the pain he was in, but I had a lot of questions. Dr. Fanous took the time to explain the surgery in detail, including all of the benefits and drawbacks,” Stacy said.

Will underwent a 12-hour surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital. First, Dr. Fanous removed portions of the damaged bones and ligaments, giving the nerves more room. Next, Dr. Fanous used a series of screws, held in place with titanium rods on each side of the spine, to recreate the curvature of Will’s lower spine, essentially reconstructing it. Dr. Fanous used the O-arm™ intraoperative CT scanning system during the surgery.

“The O-arm creates a 3D image of the spine,” Dr. Fanous said. “Using that technology, we are able to create a 3D map of the patient’s anatomy that enables us to place each screw in the ideal position, making the surgery extremely precise and safe. At Inova, we’re fortunate to be supported by the latest, most cutting-edge technology, so that we can care for patients with complex spine surgery needs, like Will.”

“It was a long and complex surgery, but he did a beautiful job,” Will said. His pain began to go away right after surgery. “They took great care of me at Inova Alexandria Hospital,” Will said. “They got me up and moving right after surgery.”

Soon, Will was doing 45 minutes of rehabilitation at a time, and he continued to step up the length and intensity of his workouts as the weeks went on. Finally, one full year after he got sick with MRSA, Will returned to his home.

He continues to exercise every day and has regular appointments with a personal trainer who specializes in rehabilitation. Thankfully, Will has returned to the things he loves: going to concerts and the theater, hosting dinner parties, and traveling to visit family and friends. “The support I received from a first-class medical staff at Inova, particularly Dr. Fanous; a first-class rehab staff; and my family and friends – it was all so important to my recovery,” Will said. “Within days of surgery, the pain was gone – and it’s still gone,” Will said. “It’s beyond wonderful. It’s miraculous.”


To learn more about Inova’s Spine Program at Inova Neurosciences, visit inovaspine.org. Or call 703-776-4700 for an appointment.

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