Bad back tests mettle of Alcoa furnace tender

tommy2Like any working stiff who has just been told he needs spinal surgery, Tommy Rogers’ first thoughts were about his job.


“My big concern was the length of recovery,” said Rogers, a 47-year-old furnace tender at the Alcoa aluminum plant now known as Arconic. “I was thinking house payments and bills. I thought I was done for because my job requires a lot of lifting, a lot of bending, I run a lot of heavy equipment. I run equipment that’s got nine-foot tires on it, and you have to climb a 12- to 15-foot ladder to get into the cab.”

But as it turned out, Rogers’ worry was unwarranted. It only took a half-inch incision and a 45-minute micro-discectomy for Parkwest orthopedic surgeon Dr. Luke Madigan to retrieve a piece of herniated disk from his spinal nerve canal. In five hours, he was discharged from Parkwest Medical Center. In less than two months, he was back at one of the more physically demanding jobs on the planet.


“I was determined that I had to do this work,” said Rogers. “And I had to make a quick recovery because that’s our life! That place pays our bills.”


It was that need for a quick recovery that lead Rogers to the Parkwest orthopedic surgeon. Months earlier, when his wife Patricia needed spinal fusion, they met Dr. Madigan for the first time. “We came out of that meeting and my wife looked at me and said, ‘He’s not like any other doctor I’ve ever met,’” said Rogers. “He was in the room 35 to 40 minutes. He didn’t just whisk in and whisk out. He took us back to a room and he showed us the MRI and answered every question we had. Fantastic doctor!”


Rogers, however, didn’t think his own lower back problems were severe enough to require surgery. He began experiencing pain after moving the family into a new home last December. At first, it was minor. By early March, the pain had reached a “4” on the pain scale and was radiating into his left leg.


Then came March 25, when the pain scale reached a “9.” All feeling in Rogers’ left leg was gone and he was unable to lift his foot enough to put on his shoe. “It was unbearable,” said Rogers who reported to work just the same. “But that’s a tribute to the guys I work with every day. There are five of us on a crew and those four guys helped me through that. They helped me do my job all day along.”

After an MRI the following Monday, his family doctor read the radiologist’s report. “He said, ‘It’s bad. You’re going to have to have surgery,” said Rogers who asked to be referred to Dr. Madigan.

In fact, it was even worse than his family doctor thought. On April 7, Dr. Madigan looked over the MRI results and saw part of Rogers’ herniated lumbar disk had broken off and fallen into the spinal canal.


“The disk was like a jelly doughnut that’s squeezed the jelly out,” said Dr. Madigan, adding that the disk material from Rogers’ L4-5 lumbar spine was sitting on a nerve. “So what you do is, basically, you take a little bit of bone but mostly you are taking out disk material. You take that out and let the nerve fall back into its normal place in the canal. That way, you are taking the tension off the nerve.”


“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t think it was that bad,” said Rogers. “I was worried that I was going to be out of work for four or five months. My wife had just gone back to work after being out four months with her fusion. I asked Dr. Madigan ‘How long?’ and he said, ‘Probably three months.’”

Four days later, on April 11, Rogers entered Parkwest for this surgery. In minutes, his surgery was over. “It’s not a particularly long procedure,” said Dr. Madigan. “They go home on the same day and generally do very well with it.”

“The nurses were so nice,” said Rogers. “Dr. Madigan was super, super nice. Everybody at the hospital was so nice. I’ve had a few surgeries in my day but I’ve never been so well informed about what they were going to do.”

Just a few hours after discharge, Rogers was home walking his dog a half mile around the neighborhood. After 14 sessions of physical therapy, Rogers was released to return to work.

“He was a very motivated patient. He went back to work and did very well, but in terms of heavy manual labor, I generally let them go back to doing heavier work somewhere in about eight to 10 weeks,” said Dr. Madigan. “I don’t want patients to do a lot of bending over in the beginning because you can squirt more disk material out. But after six weeks, I let them start getting moving and becoming more active. I generally send them to therapy once or twice just to show them some exercises – not just for their post-surgical issues but also for long-term care of their back.”

Motivated or not, Rogers admits that first day back at work was challenging.

“I think we set a record for the temperature that day,” said Rogers. “Sweat was pouring off me. But just like before my guys took care of me. And my company took care of me. My managers, my supervisors walked past me I guess about 10 times that day: ‘Are you OK? Do you need to sit down?’ I said, ‘I’m alright.’ And I walked about 4.5 miles that first day back to work.”

But the outside temperature wasn’t the only challenge – the temperature inside the furnace is 1350 degrees. “When I open my furnace door, you can stand with a paper bag seven feet from the door and it will spontaneously catch fire,” said Rogers who not only draws samples of the molten metals from the furnace but also operates heavy machinery to lift 53,000-pound ingots. “That job is hard on you. We all stay kind of broken down.”

When that happens, Rogers is quick to refer friends and crew members to Parkwest Medical Center and Dr. Luke Madigan.

I have recommended everybody that I know to them,” said Rogers. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got a co-worker who needs knee surgery right now and I turned him on to Parkwest. He’s using a doctor at Parkwest. And I’ve referred three more people to Dr. Madigan. He is an absolutely great doctor. The thing that makes me like him so much is his bedside manner. He acts like I’m not just a notebook. He looks at you when you talk. You can kid him. He’s a kidder, he’s a person, not a machine. He’s fantastic.”

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