The Orange County Register: H.B. surfer receives free back surgery

Source: Orange County Register | By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher  | View Full Article

Joey Hawkins hurt himself in 1987; he recently had to give up wave riding due to the pain.

Staying out of the water wasn’t an option.

World champion longboarder Joey Hawkins, 43, has been surfing through back pain for decades, but in recent months the pain has been so intense it has forced him to hang up his wetsuit.

A look at the surgery

Orthopedic spine surgeon Hooman Melamed performed an anterior lumbar interbody fusion on World Champion longboarder Joey Hawkins Friday in Marina del Rey. The procedure is usually needed because the patient is suffering from degenerative disc disease.

Here’s a look at the steps.

Incision: Melamed makes an incision on the lower stomach. The cut is usually about three- to five inches long.

Expose the spine: A vascular surgeon removes the patient’s organs, exposing the spine.

Disc removal: The degenerated disc is removed. Melamed leaves some behind to help with the bone graft.

Implantation: A bone graft is placed in a metal graft and inserted in the back. This helps relieve the pressure from pinched nerve roots.

Securing the vertebrae: Screws and rods are placed along the spine to support the new implant.

Fusion: Over time, the bone graft grows through the implant and around it. This will make a sort of bridge to fuse the vertebrae.

He hasn’t surfed since Feb. 5.

“I’ve been grieving over not being able to surf,” Hawkins said. “I feel like I can’t let that go. It’s impossible to let that go.”

He may not have to. Hawkins was chosen by orthopedic spine surgeon Hooman Melamed to receive a unique pro bono surgery through his nonprofit, Back to You. The procedure is expected to relieve Hawkins’ pain and get him back in the water.

“I haven’t offered any guarantees … there’s a risk with everything,” Melamed said. “But the goal is to get him back surfing, and I think it will be about six months.”

Melamed, who has offices at DISC Sports & Spine Center in Newport Beach, Beverly Hills and Marina del Rey, on Friday performed an anterior lumbar interbody fusion procedure, which requires surgeons to go in from the front, make an incision below the stomach and remove the organs to fuse the bones in Hawkins’ lower back.

Although not a new procedure, it is not as common as invasive back surgery, Melamed said.

“A vascular surgeon is the key to this operation,” he said. “He’s the one who exposes the spine for me.

“It’s such a great operation and patients do amazingly well.”

Hawkins is home recovering but will have several months of work ahead of him before he rides waves again.

He said he’ll be patient with the challenge.

“I don’t expect it to be easy,” he said.

Dealing with injury and pain

Hawkins first injured his back during the National Scholastic Surfing Association competition in 1987.

“I was paddling for a wave and I went to stand up and I couldn’t stand up.”

Hawkins could no longer ride a shortboard, so he switched to longboarding, which was easier on his back and involved less gyrating and twisting, he said.

He traveled the world, won numerous competitions and was named world champion in 1992.

Hawkins is credited in the surfing world as a progressive surfer who melded the style of shortboarding with traditional longboarding. In 2004, Longboard magazine described Hawkins as the most overlooked world champion in surfing history.

But the pain he had been managing eventually took its toll.

Hawkins was diagnosed with depression, spinal meningitis, Bell’s palsy and shingles – all complications stemming from his degenerative back problems.

He underwent surgery in 1997, but it didn’t fix the problem, he said.

“I was never 100 percent after that,” he said.

Hawkins gave up professional surfing in 2000 and his recreational wave-riding dwindled.

His back problems gave way to depression, which contributed to an addiction with methamphetamine that Hawkins kicked in 2009.

After getting clean, Hawkins returned to surfing, but he couldn’t be consistent – the pain keeping him out of the water for several weeks at a time.

There were days Hawkins couldn’t sit or stand for more than 15 minutes without pain streaming through his body.

In November 2012, Hawkins could no longer tolerate the pain and was taking pain medication around the clock. He started researching surgeons and sending letters to doctors in hopes that someone would take his case and offer him some financial help.

“More than anything, I just want the pain to go away,” he said.

Ready for recovery and therapy

Hawkins, an athlete and surfing coach, does not have medical insurance.

After an extensive interview process with Back to You, the organization told Hawkins on April 12 that he was chosen for the surgery.

“We’re still kind of in shock,” Hawkins said. “I have never heard of anyone giving free back surgery.”

Hawkins is expected to go through three months of therapy and recovery.

“Back surgery is not for everyone,” Melamed said. “You have to have the ideal patient with the right diagnosis. If you have a patient who is not emotionally or mentally motivated, it’s not going to work either.”

Hawkins said he’ll ease in to the surfing scene again – whether that means riding recreationally or competitively.

“I would love to put some kind of bookend on my career,” he said. “But if I can do it and pass it on to my daughter, nephew and niece, that’s what I’d like to do the most.”

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