Flanders recovers from neck surgery

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/24/99.

Flanders Senior Camille Flanders won't be setting any school records in the pole vault this spring, but her family is happy she literally can walk away.

After undergoing a four-hour operation last month to realign the vertebra in her neck, missing the track season and having her sports career at Paynesville Area High School end early gains perspective. One hard fall and Camille could reinjure her neck and end up paralyzed.

Camille injured her neck at a gymnastics meet on Friday, Jan. 29. While warming up for the balance beam, Camille was going to do her dismount. With the spotter waiting, Camille bailed out of the attempt and tried to drop onto her feet. Because she was leaning back already, she didn't get her feet under her and landed on her neck. The spotter couldn't have done anything to prevent it, she said

She was held out of the meet and had X-rays taken. She felt stiff right away, but persevered. She went to a school dance that night, and spent Saturday outside riding her horse.

On Tuesday, she competed in the next gymnastics meet. "Everything went really well," she said. "I got one of my best scores on bars."

On Wednesday, her high school sports career ended when her gymnastics coach Diane Dutcher got a call from a radiologist asking that Camille have an MRI done. On the X-rays, there was a tear-drop fracture on her vertebra, and if there was enough force to break bone, more damage was possible.

By Friday, she knew she had torn ligaments and would need to rest her neck to allow it to heal.

When she met a neuro surgeon the next week, she was given a neck collar to wear for four weeks that would immobilize her neck and allow it to heal. If it hadn't healed by then, surgery would be necessary, she said.

Collars and surgery came as a surprise to her. "We thought we were just going in to get the go-ahead to resume my normal life," said Camille. "It was all just a big shock."

"The first time I wore (the collar) to school I wanted to post a sign on me because everyone wanted to know what happened to me," she said.

Her parents, Mike and Jo Flanders, took her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for a second opinion in February, and the doctors there recommended immediate surgery. They measured her vertebra being forward 22 degrees. Her appointment with the neuro surgeon there was on Tuesday, Feb. 23, and the next day she had surgery.

"At that point, I was pretty much expecting surgery," said Camille. "I did not know that it was going to be that soon, but I was glad it was. I felt that any time I waited would be wasted time."

The problem was in her seventh cervical vertebra, which joins the spine at the back of the neck. "Everyone has a bump where they go together," said Camille. "I had a big bump for awhile."

The vertebra needed to be realigned correctly and fixed into place so it could heal. Through an incision in her neck, the surgeons moved her esophagus to the side and removed the damaged disc between the sixth and seventh vertebra. They replaced it with a piece of bone removed from Camille's left hip. They also put a steel plate in the front of her neck to hold things straight. The bones will also grow together to keep things in their proper place.

"Actually, my hip was more sore than my neck," she explained. "I could never pinpoint the pain, but my hip was really sore."

She stayed in the hospital in Rochester for four days.

For at least six weeks, she will continue to wear the collar to help her neck heal correctly. After that, she's hoping she won't have to wear it anymore and that she can resume noncontact activities, like running and horseback riding. There's an outside possibility that if she's cleared to run in early April she will run for the track team. But even if she's cleared, she won't be in very good shape to compete in long distance runs.

That's if she hasn't started already. "I'm usually really active, and it's been really hard to just sit and do nothing," she said. Already she has started biking to school as an alternative form of exercise.

Camille's family are avid horseback riders. Her mother, Jo, explained, "One of the first questions she asked was 'Can I ride my horse?'"

That will be tested after Camille leaves on the German trip Thursday. Her homestay family has three horses, and Camille has already decided to ride. "Definitely no more than a walk," she said.

The danger would be for her to fall and land on her neck. "I guess that was a risk that I took before, too," she said.

She won't rush to take any risks with her suitcase. "I can't carry anything that's heavier than a book, so someone will have to carry my suitcase," she said.

At one time, a small jolt to her neck might have broken her spinal cord and left her paralyzed, but now her overall prognosis is good. "Everywhere we went they told us, 'You don't know how lucky you are,'" said Jo. "We are just really glad it turned out the way it did."

She will have to be careful. "(My neck) is just less flexible, so it is easier to reinjure," she said. Anyone can fall and injure their neck, so it's unclear how much greater the risk she faces is.

Because she already has damaged her neck, though, more damage and repair would leave her neck increasingly inflexible and increasingly prone to injury.

On the German trip, she'll have some wounded company. Her gymnastics teammate, junior Krysta Larson, tore her Achilles tendon and broke a bone in her foot while landing after her vault on Jan. 26. Larson has been put in a boot cast and is still on crutches.

Neither will be able to tour the salt mine with the German class, and Larson won't be able to climb the steps at any cathedrals.

Krysta competed with her injury for several weeks until the pain became too much. Now her foot specialist won't allow her to put any weight on her foot.

By allowing her foot to heal, Krysta hopes to avoid surgery. If it heals soon enough, she may be able to attend gymnastics camp this summer, said her mother, Michele Voecks.

Krysta also will miss this track season. Last year, she ran relays, threw the discus, and pole vaulted with Camille.

Return to Sports Archives