July 3, 1991
One of the surgeons who operated on Larry Bird's back said yesterday there were no real surprises in the two-hour procedure.
However, Dr. Alexander Wright took one look at Bird's beat-up lower back on the morning of June 7 and wondered to himself, "How did this guy do it?"
"I don't see how he played with what he had," said Wright, an orthopedic surgeon and chief of spine surgery at New England Baptist Hospital, who operated on Bird along with Dr. Gerwin Neumann, a neurosurgeon. The two were not permitted to speak about the operation after it took place.
Yesterday, however, Wright discussed the operation, which the Celtics and Bird hope will allow the franchise forward to return next season. Wright said the operation was a fairly common one and that he had a similar message for those about to undergo the procedure.
"We tell the patient that there is a 70-75 percentchance that they will see a 70-75 percent improvement," he said. "But for someone like Larry, the numbers would probably be lower because of what he does."
Asked for a prognosis, Wright said much of that will rest in Bird's mind rather than his back.
"I think it is very good, but that's based more on Larry and who he is rather than on what we did," Wright said. "What does make us very optimistic is that when he woke up the next morning, he said there was no pain in the area for the first time in seven months.
"His will is as much a part of all this as anything. Because he wants to go, he won't let anything stop him. He is going to have back pain. Whether it will impede him, I don't know. I wouldn't think so. The pain certainly won't be of the severity that he experienced before."
The one lingering problem may be the disc, Wright said, which is in the L 4-5 section of the back, an unstable area. The disc was ruptured, and although it is better than before June 7, it still is subpar. The disc is degenerative, and when that is severe enough - it wasn't in this case - a spinal fusion operation may be necessary, Wright said.
"A disc is very important," he said. "It acts like a shock absorber. He still has a weakened disc and you can't take it out. One of the problems with a disc is that it has no healing potential. That's because there is no blood supply. You cut your finger, the blod clots, and the wound heals. That can't happen with a disc."
Bird was released from the hospital the day after the operation. He is wearing a back brace, which Wright said is scheduled to remain in place for three months, although that could change. Bird already is walking up to 10 miles a day and doing some water exercises.
At his charity game in Indianapolis 10 days ago, Bird said his biggest problem now is not pain, but boredom. He said his future was uncertain but did say he was optimistic because he was pain free. He also said he would not endure another season like the one he just had, in which he missed 22 games because of the bad back, subsisted on anti-inflammatories and wasn't able to practice for the last two months.
Wright also went into the technical aspect of the operation, which basically freed a nerve root, redirected it to its proper location and cleaned out the facet (joint). The surgeons also removed a bony protrusion that was putting pressure on the nerve.
"Technically, it wasn't that difficult an operation," Wright said. "It's just that you're not operating on a $ 7 million back every day."