Coming from a long line of men who made their living on the water – his father was captain of a fishing trawler – Herman “Skip” Gibbs first injured his neck more than forty years ago when he dove into shallow water as a teenager. He went to the doctor after the accident and got muscle relaxers, he remembers, but because he grew up in a family where men weren’t supposed to be weak, he didn’t complain much when the pain didn’t resolve. “It wasn’t uncommon to just accept things,” he says, “men especially.” He’d talk briefly to his personal physician from time to time if the pain got worse, but by and large, he learned to accept it.
And after learning to accept the pain, Skip spent the next several years learning to adjust to it. He devised his own treatment: he’d double up a towel and wrap it around his neck when it got bad; then he began wearing a foam cervical collar whenever the pain became extreme. And he took over-the-counter medications like Tylenol. “I just didn’t push the issue,” he says.
But as he got older, and began to explore a series of strenuous occupations, it began bothering him more and more. “I’ve done a little of everything to earn a living,” he says, “all of it physically demanding.” He took a job with the fire department early on, working fires as well as the ambulance unit, where he even delivered babies. He liked the work well enough, but the pay wasn’t great, so he decided to go into “the family business” – to become a tugboat captain.
In those days, Capt. Gibbs says, there were no courses and no technology to teach an aspiring seaman how to operate a tugboat. He almost literally taught himself the rules of the harbor, doing a journeymanship for three years. “Coming from a family of watermen, I had a head start,” he concedes, “but we had no simulators. We learned on the water.”
Learning on the water may have been easy for Skip, but with his injury, life on a tugboat was far from it. He continued to use the collar and over-the-counter analgesics to ease the pain, but “…my neck would be aggravated by any little thing,” he says. “On the sea, if I was working on a boat with low hatches and bump my head, that would set it back again. It would flare up and become increasingly uncomfortable.”
That’s not surprising: a tugboat’s top speed of 6 to 9 knots may make the ride look gentle from the dock, but tugs move huge ships that are full of cargo – they move barges laden with heavy, bulk materials – often in rough seas that could jostle his neck severely. “At first, the pain was tolerable,” he says, “because I would just hyperextend my neck with one of those collars, and after a couple of days, it would start to improve.” He dealt with the pain for forty years, but it progressed, until “the last ten years were the worst,” Skip admits. And one day, it became too much to bear.
“I was working in New Jersey, longer stretches than normal,” he says. “It got so bad I didn’t feel I could use my arm.” The seasoned captain, who had learned early on to accept pain, finally told his boss, “You gotta get me off the boat – I’m in too much pain.”
Knowing the captain was no complainer, Skip’s employer took his request seriously, and referred him to his personal chiropractor. “She took one look at me and said she wasn’t going to touch me until I had an MRI,” Skip remembers. “That’s how I found Orthopaedic & Spine Center.”
He had the MRI and met with Dr. Carlson in September of 2010. “Capt. Gibbs had done all the regular things that people do to try to stay away from the surgeon,” Dr. Carlson recalls. “But by the time I saw him, he was having a lot of numbness and pain going down into his shoulder blade, as well as down into his fingers. The MRI showed that he had two large disc herniations in his neck. That explained the pain and dysfunction in his arm.” Dr. Carlson continues, “It’s no wonder he wasn’t able to perform his duties. You can’t even think straight when you have the kind of pain he was experiencing.”
At that point, Capt. Gibbs knew, a decision had to be made. Dr. Carlson had thoroughly explained his options: he could try medication, either pills or injections. He could continue with chiropractic-assisted therapy – or he could undergo surgery. “He gave me a DVD to look at and to discuss with my wife,” Skip remembers. “I asked a thousand questions, and we reviewed all the information.”
They were both apprehensive about the surgery, Capt. Gibbs remembers, “but Dr. Carlson impressed me. I appreciated his straight talk. He showed me on the MRI how my spinal column was pinched, almost completely closed. He told me I barely had any fluid in my spinal column running between the upper the lower portions – and he explained that if it closed off, I could have permanent damage.”
Skip’s case was further complicated by his medical history: years before, he’d been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, had been told he was borderline lupus, and had a bad thyroid. He’d also sustained a mild heart attack 3 or 4 years before the surgery. “I had a small stent,” he says, “and Dr. Carlson worked with my cardiovascular physician and my other doctors. He really went the extra mile to be sure I was getting the best result.”
His surgery was October 25, 2010. When he woke from anesthesia, he remembers, “all the tingling, the pain, the numbness, were all were gone. After forty years, it was all gone.”
Describing the surgery itself, Capt. Gibbs says, “Dr. Carlson put a titanium plate in there, with six screws. It was a new procedure – he went through the front of my throat.” In fact, he says, “Dr. Carlson is one of the innovators of going through the front of the throat to put the plate in. Formerly, he’d have opened the back of my neck and pried your muscles apart. But because he avoided doing that, the recovery time is cut down to about 10%.” And as for post-operative pain, Skip admits to some discomfort: “maybe a day or two worth” – and adds that he stopped taking post-operative pain medication on day three.
Today, he defies anyone to find the scar on his neck. “The surgical cut was so clean and so smooth that as it healed, it just looks like a normal wrinkle. I actually have to tell somebody I’ve had surgery.” Nearly two years later, he remains pain free.
For Capt. Gibbs, there was another bonus. “I had scoliosis, a curvature in my neck, something I inherited from my mother,” he says, “and just off the cuff, I asked Dr. Carlson if he could straighten my neck during the surgery.” Dr. Carlson said he could – and today, Skip notes, “My neck is as straight as it can be.”