Tom Looks Forward to the Future After Spine Surgery Repairs Fractured Neck

Thomas Bull, 82, understands better than most how a person’s life can change in an instant. In March 2022, Tom was hanging a picture in his living room when he fell off a step stool and fractured his neck. After his first neck surgery failed, he came to neurosurgeon Andrew Fanous, MD, FAANS, Section Chief of Neurological Surgery, Inova Alexandria Hospital and participating member of the Inova Spine Program, for help. Today, Tom is back to doing many of the things he loves.

Communication and connection have always been important in Tom’s life. A child of deaf adults, Tom worked as a teacher of the deaf for nearly 40 years and continues to be involved with the deaf community as an American Sign Language interpreter and nonprofit volunteer. But after his first surgery, he lost some of that ability to connect – because his neck was not able to lift his head up at all.

“I spent more than two months looking at the ground,” he said. He couldn’t look people in the eye when he was talking with them, hampering his ability to communicate and isolating him from others. He had a hard neck collar, which immobilized his head and neck, and he slept in a reclining chair. Although he was very nervous about having another surgery, Tom was desperate. “I couldn’t go on living like this,” he said.

Tom’s previous spine surgeon referred him to Dr. Fanous because his case was especially complicated. “When I first met Tom, he couldn’t lift his chin off his neck and couldn’t walk in a straight line. Our diagnosis showed he had a significant fracture in his neck as well as complications from the previous procedure,” Dr. Fanous said.

Dr. Fanous gave Tom two options. The first option was a smaller surgery, and the second choice was a more extensive surgery. The second option would stabilize the spine and use a metal plate in the neck, and Tom would no longer be able to turn his head. It also carried a small risk of damaging his vocal cords, rendering him unable to speak. The advantage was the surgery has a higher success rate.

Dr. Fanous met with Tom several times as Tom was weighing his options. During one of those meetings, Tom shared his concerns. “I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to live. I felt so fragile. I was questioning the future and was unsure about what my quality of life would be. Dr. Fanous said, ‘When you’re with me in surgery, I am completely focused on you. You’re the most important person in the room.’ I felt such confidence in him at that moment,” Tom recalled. Tom put his trust in Dr. Fanous and opted for the more extensive surgical repair.

Dr. Fanous performed the all-day, two-stage surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital, repairing the front of the neck in the morning and the back in the afternoon. The surgery was a success, and Tom was able to speak normally. “The first thing I said when I woke up was, “I love Dr. Fanous,’” Tom noted.

“I removed a bone in the front of the neck and replaced it with a graft,” Dr. Fanous said. “In the back, I removed the old screws and extended the fusion from the head to the middle of his back. Tom did extremely well.”

After a couple of nights in the hospital, and a couple of weeks of intensive rehabilitation at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, Tom was well on his way to a full recovery. With each follow-up appointment, he has gained confidence that this time, the repair is permanent. In November, he mowed his lawn for the first time in 2022. Although he no longer drives, Tom is enjoying the independence he has regained, running errands and cooking for himself once again. He looks forward to returning to his volunteer work with the deaf community as well. “It’s a wonderful thing to have a new lease on life,” Tom said.

The Inova Spine Program offers world-class, comprehensive treatment for back and neck pain, injury, tumors, trauma and more. To learn more or schedule an appointment contact us at 703-776-4700.

1 Comment

  1. Sheila on May 15, 2023 at 6:59 am

    Tom Bull was first Outreach Coordinator for the international CODA hearing Children of Deaf Adults org which held its very first annual CODA Conference in 1986 and I was on that first planning committee. Tom and three other Codas returned to the east coast where they were involved with national and international orgs like what we call our Deaf Mecca at Gallaudet University where they helped spread the message of CODA which was the name of the Oscar award winning Hollywood Best movie of 2022 which won 3 Oscars! Tom Bull as CODA Outreach Coordinator contributed so much to the growth of a new org to taking its place on our national stage. I am forever thankful to both have had Tom Bull as a lifelong dear Coda friend encouraging me on innovative CODA type projects I have led as well as being one of my best friends always there when I needed him!! So thankful for this incredibly successful cutting edge surgery and so happy to visit him the first week he moved into OakCrest Community and behold how happy he is to now live very close to family and ready to dive in to the myriad of meet ups there and get to know all the other amazing people in this “village” of our wise Elders like Tom!!

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