Team Handball Star Recovers Successfully From Spinal Fusion Surgery at Resurgens Orthopaedics
After years of competitive athletics, including 14 years on the U.S. National Handball Team, injuries from an auto accident led Darrick Heath to Resurgens Orthopaedics for spine surgery.
The 1996 Olympian led the U.S. handball team in assists and was second in scoring at the Atlanta Games. He suffered a fractured vertebra in his lower back in 2003 in an auto accident.
“At that point, I didn’t get any invasive work done to treat it,” he said. After failing to qualify for the 2004 Games in Greece, he retired from competition and moved to Atlanta where he teaches physical education at Emory University and works as a counselor for at-risk teenagers at the Boys and Girls Club.
“I just tried to deal with my back for years, but when I started having numbness going down my right side, my primary care provider referred me” to Dr. Paul Jeffords at Resurgens who did the spinal fusion surgery in July 2009.
“Being an Olympic athlete, I’ve worked with some of the best doctors around. The staff at Resurgens is second to none. The quality of service was incredible. It was high level, elite service, and they treat everybody that way,” Heath said.
“I feel fantastic. It’s only been nine months, and it’s only going to get better. I won’t be competing in the Olympics, but the difference in how I feel is night and day,” he said.
Dr. Jeffords said that Darrick’s back pain was a result of stress fractures in his L4 vertebra. “These fractures are called ‘spondylolysis’ or ‘pars fractures.’ The fractures caused instability of his spine and allowed his L4 vertebra to slip forward on top of his L5 vertebra, a condition known as ‘spondylolisthesis.’
Dr. Jeffords added that the condition also caused the disc between the L4 and L5 bones to degenerate, causing additional pain.
“Darrick's condition was treated with a two-stage operation done under the same anesthesia,” Dr. Jeffords explained. “The first stage of the operation involved making a small incision in the lower abdomen and removing the damaged disc from between the L4 and L5 bones. The disc was then replaced with a plastic fusion cage filled with a material called BMP which is a protein engineered in the lab to promote bone growth. The second stage of the operation involved a minimally invasive procedure where two, less than 1-inch incisions were made in the lower back. Through these incisions titanium screws were placed into the bones of L4 and L5 using x-ray guidance. The screws were connected on each side with titanium rods. The screws and rods added greater stability to the spine, allowing the L4 and L5 bones to gradually fuse or grow together.”
“Darrick walked out of the hospital two days after surgery, and within months was participating in post-operative rehab. He is now pain-free and back to full activities,” Dr. Jeffords said.
Heath played basketball at Long Island University where he received a degree in sociology and criminal law. He called team handball “the greatest sport you’ve never seen,” and explained that outside of North America, it’s the second most popular team sport in the world. The sport was developed as a way for soccer players to stay in shape during the winter, and has been an Olympic sport since 1936.
In addition to the Olympic team, he played professional team handball in Hungary, Sweden, and Austria and was a bronze medalist at the 1996 Pan American Championships.
Dr. Jeffords is board certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgeons. His areas of expertise include adult spine disorders, reconstructive spine surgery, cervical spine surgery, endoscopic and laser spine surgery, minimally invasive spine surgery, and artificial disc replacement. He practices in the St. Joseph’s office of Resurgens.