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Dr. Kaiser’s Patient Breaks His Back Snowmobiling, Gets Right Back in Action

Bob Mueller thanks Rosemary McGill, RN (left) and races toward the finish line in Canada after his successful spine surgery (right)

Bob Mueller is what might be considered a character. The kind of gentleman who wears a cowboy hat to a business meeting. Someone who enjoys telling a good story. And a man of retirement age who spends his time snowmobiling and racing vintage boats.

In 2004, after wrapping up a career in New York City’s Financial District, Bob and his wife, Marge, moved to Alton, N.H., where they’d been spending time for years.

And then in February of 2006, Bob had what he calls “a very bad accident” while snowmobiling with his son and some friends in the woods along the Canadian border.

“I just went off the trail, going around a corner, and obviously I didn’t have full control of my sled. As I went down a ravine, I hit something.” Bob doesn’t remember exactly what happened after that, but he woke up in the snow.

By the time his companions realized he was no longer behind them, as much as an hour had gone by while Bob lay there, all but unable to move. His body temperature was way down—“to the point where another degree or two and I would have been history.”

The ski patrol “got the rescue situation underway,” and Bob was helicoptered to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in Lebanon, N.H., where he spent about 10 days. His back was broken, as were his sternum and some ribs, and there was nerve damage. Meanwhile, “they didn’t really have an immediate course of action because they wanted to wait to see if the situation would stabilize.”

He was fitted with an upper-body cast, which he remembers with a chuckle as “extremely uncomfortable.”

Simply put, that period “wasn’t a lot of fun.” He goes on: “I was wearing, basically, a half-body brace. I couldn’t put it on by myself, so I had to have 24-hour home care—that got to be really annoying.” And he laughs. “I’m not that difficult to get along with. I just mean the whole circumstance.”

At this point, a friend and former colleague from his banking days, Howard Milstein, suggested he go to The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York. He did, and he started working with Dr. Michael Kaiser, Associate Director of The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute, and Dr. Evan Johnson, Director of Physical Therapy there.

The doctors always prefer to avoid surgery whenever possible, and for a while Bob’s injuries were considered a non-surgical matter while his progress was carefully monitored. “I was in therapy for a couple of months, three times a week or so, and I was having regular CT scans, as they tried to figure out what was going on in my spine.” It just wasn’t healing.

By this time it’s May. “They determined that the vertebrae were slipping out of place because one of them was smashed. Dr. Kaiser said, ‘Well, you’ve got to have surgery.’ And I said, ‘Great. How fast can we do this?’ It turned out he had an opening four days later.”

That surgery lasted 11 hours, and it was another 15 or so hours after that before Bob woke up. “It was a long time.”

Bob talks about the bedside manner of Dr. Kaiser, whom he considers a friend. “He’s very good at expressing himself. He’s straightforward, no surprises. Nothing is held back. But you’re not offended by what he says. It’s not like he’s putting it out there to shock you. His manner of explaining things, it’s very easy to take in.”

Bob’s time in the hospital was followed up with three to four months of physical therapy at The Spine Hospital and within a year after the accident, as Bob describes it, he was “back pretty close to normal.”

What stands out in Bob’s mind about his experience at Columbia is the personal touch and the teamwork.

Dr. Kaiser is obviously very busy, but I never felt like I was kept waiting. And when I go in there, the feeling is homey. And of course, all the people around him, like Rosemary McGill, RN, who is Kaiser’s right hand in terms of coordinating different parts of patient care. I can’t imagine how complicated that is. In fact, I don’t even know because in my case, she just sort of did it all. And she was always available if I needed to talk.”

Bob was particularly impressed with the communication among physicians, physical therapists and support staff.

“That’s so important. When you have an organization like that, to have these people like Evan Johnson running the therapy unit, it just makes all the difference in the world. If Evan had a question about what I was capable of doing or what I should be doing, he’d just ask Dr. Kaiser.”

In the years since his surgery, Bob has returned to his active lifestyle, including racing those prized boats. And it was boat racing that offered him an opportunity to take his own successful healthcare experience and pay it forward.

Now it’s July 2015:

“I spend much of my spare time with the vintage boats. About a dozen years ago, I got involved with racing. We do primarily exhibitions, and one of the events we go to every year is in Valleyfield at Quebec, off the St. Lawrence River. It’s hydroplane racing, in boats that do up to 150 miles per hour. So we go out there and make a lot of noise and get these Canadians all psyched up, because there’s crowds on both sides of the river. They play The Star-Spangled Banner and the Canadian anthem. It’s just a really exciting thing.

“Last July I was asked by the race directors if I would take a young cancer patient out in the boat with me—give him the ride of a lifetime. I told them I’d love to. He was so excited, standing up in the boat—I thought he was going to jump out. He’s waving the Canadian flag and everything. It was great.” (See top image.)

Bob describes himself as “so grateful to all the people at [The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute] for enabling me to do so much.” And grateful to have “a great relationship with the people up there. That’s one of the reasons I went up there the other day, just to say hello and get a few hugs.”

It’s that gratitude and those relationships that drive Bob’s ongoing commitment to helping others get the same personal treatment he did at The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York. And this latest experience isn’t Bob’s only connection with Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. When he was 6 years old, he had surgery at what was then known as “Babies Hospital.” He can still remember spending two months in the hospital. “I somehow survived!”

He’s still surviving—we’d even say thriving. And in 2012, he headed up a fundraising campaign to expand, renovate and modernize the space, starting off with a generous donation of his own. That work was completed in 2013, and the result is an updated facility that will accommodate more patients and an increase in staff. Thank you Bob! And thank you, Dr. Kaiser and Dr. Johnson!

Learn more about Dr. Kaiser on his bio page here and learn about Dr. Johnson on his bio page here.

patient journey

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