Spinal Surgery Won’t Keep Her Grounded

When Beth Welch was a child she remembers looking up at the vast, open sky and thinking, “I want to be up there.”

It wasn’t until she was nearing retirement in 2012 that she made it happen. At 64 years old, she went skydiving for the first time. Since then, the now 70-year-old has earned a skydiving license, bought her own gear and jumped a total of 140 times. But in August of 2015 an accident brought her new passion to a sudden halt.

“I went to church, came back and jumped in the afternoon and blew the landing,” she says.

A Skydiving Accident

Welch was well past her 100th jump at that point and was trying out a new, smaller parachute in Raeford, North Carolina. She was still getting used to how the parachute felt and overshot her landing target. She had to make a quick decision between landing on what she thought was gravel or a pile of wood chips. She chose the wood chips hoping it would make for a softer touchdown, but it was just the opposite. The wood chips turned out to be made of rubber. Welch says her rubber tennis shoes hit the rubber wood chips and immediately stopped her, sending a jolt through her entire body.

“I knew something was really wrong, but I didn’t know what it was at the time,” she says.

Welch was helped up and driven back to the skydiving office by fellow skydivers, some of whom happened to be physician assistants. A local hospital referred her to UNC Health Care, and she was taken by ambulance to UNC Hospitals Surgical Intensive Care unit in Chapel Hill. Welch was given medication to help calm her nerves for an MRI, which she says is the last thing she remembers until she woke up after surgery.

Repairing the Spine

After the MRI, Welch’s family discussed the then-67-year-old’s injury and treatment options with UNC neurosurgeon Deb Bhowmick, MD, who specializes in complex spinal surgery. Welch had serious damage to the L5 vertebrae in her lower back—a severe compression of the bone known as a burst fracture that required surgery.

Dr. Bhowmick says he’s seen injuries similar to Welch’s before, but mostly in young military members who were injured in skydiving training exercises on nearby military bases. A majority of Dr. Bhowmick’s patients around Welch’s age come to him for what he calls fragility fractures, which are injuries to frail bones caused by low-energy falls. He knew from the beginning that Welch’s treatment plan would be different.

“She’s a very strong-willed person and not your average 67-year-old,” Dr. Bhowmick says. “The usual reparative surgery for Welch’s type of injury leaves patients with limited ability to bend forward and backward. When I told her there’d be no more jumping out of planes, she said yes, there would be. That meant that we’d have to ramp down the size and scope of the surgery we were planning in order to allow her to stay flexible enough to keep jumping.”

Dr. Bhowmick says he could tell how passionate Welch was about skydiving, and how dedicated she would be to her own recovery. She underwent a nearly seven-hour surgery in which Dr. Bhowmick and his team performed a corpectomy, removing a large majority of Welch’s vertebrae from the front of her spine and replacing them with a metal strut. They also placed screws, rods and a plate in and around her spine to make sure her body would be strong enough to withstand future impacts from skydiving.

Getting Back to the Sky

After surgery, Welch was in the hospital for a week. She can’t remember everything about her experience, but she does know she was treated well.

“I liked all my physicians at UNC,” Welch says. “My memory was pretty foggy during my time there, but I remember everyone being nice. The nursing personnel were outstanding.”

Beth went home to Columbia, South Carolina, where she went through a week of inpatient therapy, and then continued rehabilitation with outpatient therapy for several more weeks. During the beginning of her recovery she used a wheelchair, but she advanced quickly to walking without a cane—which proved to be a difficult task at first.

“I had a new normal after that. You learn to move again without bending or twisting. The first time I was walking on the track at the gym, two elderly gentlemen with canes passed me and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get better than this!’”

In September 2016, after a year of rehabilitation, Dr. Bhowmick released Welch to start skydiving again. She didn’t jump right back into it though. She started small, practicing her maneuvers in an indoor wind tunnel for several months. In May of 2017, she was ready.

“I was a little bit nervous, but not much,” she says. “Before you go on any jump there’s always a lot of excitement and a little bit of nerves.”

Her first time back in the sky was successful, ending with a comfortable landing that didn’t cause her pain. She’s been jumping ever since.

Dr. Bhowmick says Welch is proof that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to surgery, especially in elderly patients, isn’t the best option.

“When you’re healthy, dedicated and young at heart like Beth, your age isn’t a predictor of how you will heal from a spinal injury,” Dr. Bhowmick says.

Welch doesn’t plan to stop jumping anytime soon.

“I guess I’m hardheaded,” she says. “I’ve always loved looking at the sky and I’ve always wanted to be up there, and I knew I would be back. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Learn more about the UNC Hospitals Spine Center.