UA Surgeon Offers Minimally Invasive Option for Easier Back Surgery

The UA department of surgery continues to expand minimally invasive and robot-assisted surgical options across all 11 divisions, including neurosurgery for brain and spine disorders.
March 19, 2013
Dr. Ali A. Baaj
Dr. Ali A. Baaj
Kent Amerman
Kent Amerman

A Green Valley man who suffered from debilitating back pain is ready to start swinging a golf club again following The University of Arizona Medical Center's first minimally invasive spinal fusion.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Ali A. Baaj, an assistant professor in the UA department of surgery who specializes in minimally invasive spinal surgery, performed the three-hour procedure on Kent Amerman, 73.
"I feel great," said Amerman, who is back at his potter's wheel following the November 2012 procedure.
Amerman, a retired businessman, first experienced back pain about eight years ago. It was aggravated during a move from Phoenix to Green Valley half a dozen years ago, leaving him unable to stand up straight.
"So many doctors approach this with, 'You're old. You have a bad back. Deal with it,'" Amerman said.
The pain made everyday life difficult. He and his wife of 53 years, Judy, hoped to take long excursions, but pain prevented Amerman from being able to walk for more than a few minutes without taking a break.
He tried steroid injections and other treatments that provided no permanent relief. "It became a real burden and I was just fed up with it," he said.
He turned to the Internet, looking for someone who could help him. "I wanted to go to a hospital that was at the leading edge, the Mercedes Benz of hospitals." He was interested in minimally invasive surgery, and found Baaj.
Baaj joined the UA in 2012 after completing a premier spinal neurosurgical fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. He brings to Southern Arizona new minimally invasive surgical, or MIS, techniques for patients with disorders of the spine and spinal cord. He is formally trained in complex, open procedures and thus can offer either MIS or traditional techniques, based on the specific condition.
Baaj diagnosed Amerman with spinal stenosis and a slipped vertebra. He did not immediately suggest surgery, but instead prescribed physical therapy. When that provided no significant relief, Baaj suggested that Amerman would be an ideal candidate for minimally invasive spinal fusion.
In his 70s and on blood thinners for a blood clot, Amerman was considered high risk for traditional surgery.
Baaj performed a decompression of the spine, cleaned out the degenerated disk and arthritic bone and inserted a fusion cage and stabilizing instrumentation, all through two 5-centimeter incisions on each side of the spine. Amerman was home two days after the procedure.
Traditional open surgery would have potentially left a scar of about 14 centimeters – or 5 to 6 inches – with more muscle dissection. A traditional procedure would have caused more blood loss, a greater chance of infection, increased pain, a longer hospital stay and a slower recovery.
Data suggest that the long-term outcome for select minimally invasive procedures is equivalent to traditional surgery, Baaj said.
Amerman called Baaj "a gem of a doctor."
His days now are spent creating works of art in his pottery workshop, teaching a pottery class and enjoying life with his wife. The two recently visited an art fair, and Amerman walked the entire fair without having to stop.
"I am virtually pain free," he said. "I feel like I did years ago."
"Dr. Baaj is able to take on complex spinal disease with aggressive and extensive procedures," said Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of the UA Division of Neurosurgery. "By the same token, when a more minimalist approach can be used, Dr. Baaj has the abilities to offer the patients an effective, yet less intrusive operation. As we grow the Neurosurgery Spine Service at the University of Arizona, we want to make sure we can pair the right patient with the right treatment."
Said Dr. Rainer W.G. Gruessner, chairman of the surgery department: "The department of surgery continues to expand minimally invasive and robot-assisted surgical options across all 11 divisions, including neurosurgery for brain and spine disorders."