Making the patient connection: A conversation with NBA legend Bill Walton

March 21, 2013 by Brian Johnson

Bill Walton tells to MassDevice.com about his work with medical device company NuVasive and its "Better Way Back" program.

Bill Walton

Even before the spine surgery he claims saved his life, Bill Walton's body was a marvel of medicine.

The Hall of Fame basketball player, who counts 2 NCAA national titles and 2 NBA championship rings to his name, has undergone 36 surgeries by his count, including 2 ankle fusions and a plethora of knee and foot procedures.

Despite that dubious pedigree, Walton told MassDevice.com that he was unprepared for the overwhelming nerve pain from a degenerative disc in his back that left him on the floor for nearly 3 years.

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The world's tallest Deadhead was despondent and broken by the winter of 2009, when he underwent lateral lumbar interbody fusion (XLIF) surgery followed by posterior laminectomy, discectomy and fusion. Walton told us he credits the 8-hour procedure with saving his life.

It also gave him a new sideline, as a patient ambassador for NuVasive Inc. (NSDQ:NUVA), the San Diego-based medical device company that developed the XLIF procedure. We recently caught up with the Big Red Head for a chat about his new life as a patient advocate.

MassDevice: Tell us a little bit about the work you're doing with NuVasive and the Better Way Back program.

Bill Walton: This is the most important thing I've ever done in my life, because I'm alive today because of the sacrifices, discipline and vision of other people.

I lived with back pain for more than 35 years and I just thought that was the way life was. Ultimately, it got so bad that I could not move any longer. I spent 2 years on the ground trying to get better, doing everything possible to get better. And then I had no choice, so I had the most serious, complicated surgery of my life – and I've a lot of surgeries. I've had 36 orthopedic surgeries, I've got 2 fused ankles, my knees hands and wrists don't work and now I have a fused spine. But this was, far and away, the hardest surgery I've ever had to do.

The spine is another world of surgery and recovery. The brain is #1 and #2 is your spine. While everything else is tough and hard and serious, the spine is what holds everything together. Anyone who's ever been down this road knows exactly what I'm talking about. As the manifestation of this [pain] consumes your life, it ruins everything for you and everyone in the circle around you.

While I have this unbelievable good fortune of getting better and the privilege of returning to health, with that comes the responsibility to move it forward for the next guy coming down that road. That's why this is the most important work I'm doing in my life, because when I was down my friends and family, former teammates would call me and say, "Bill, just don't give up. You can make it."

But you do give up, because it's just too hard. It takes everything away in your life. So I'm really lucky. I have no pain now. I take no medication. I had no idea what life was like without back pain. It's a miracle, what happened to me.

I spend hours every day on the phone, face-to-face, on the Internet, talking people off the bridge, or putting the gun down. You lose everything [with chronic pain]. You can't function, you can't sleep, you can't get off the floor. And ultimately you lose your dignity and self-respect, and the pain is so overwhelming. I've lived my whole life with joint and bone pain, but the nerve pain never goes away.

When I first had the surgery, I felt like a truck ran over me. When that went by, the steamroller came by and flattened me. If you haven't been there you have no idea how debilitating this is, but I've been there, so I can talk to people and let them know that there is hope.

People are terrified of surgery. When you spend time with people who think they're going to die, then who want to die and then they're afraid that they're going to live and this is what they're stuck with, it is an incredibly emotional experience. They're devastated and scared, just as I was, and they're terrified of what's going to happen to them, and there is nothing they can do about it.

There's a team concept behind the Better Way Back program that we come with: Education for patients, advocacy on the public policy issues that we address on a constant basis, and then the information, support and all the different programs that we have to connect this incredible group of people who are in this world, never by choice, but that sense of, "We're here, what are we going to do about it?"

MassDevice: How did you find out about NuVasive and the XLIF procedure?

BW:  I knew nothing. I was on the floor for 2 years and my friend and colleague Jim Gray found [spine surgeon] Dr. Steve Garfin. Jim Gray found NuVasive, he did all the research. Jim called me everyday and said, "Bill, don't give up, you can make it." He did all the work, because I was incapable. I couldn't get up off the floor. Jim was on that phone, he was meeting with these people, saying, "You have to fix Bill." Jim is relentless, so he dug it all out. He just gave up everything and came to my assistance.

I had every advantage in the world. Not everyone is in that situation and that's why this work is so important. When I talk to these people, you come in tough, you come in rugged but your body is broken, your heart is broken and your body is broken. Our job is to come and put it all back together. We help them believe, because when you don't have your health, what you ultimately lose is the hope and dream that tomorrow is going to be better. We match patients with surgeons, we match patients with the  right people in the medical community to work as a team and then we also have to address the policy issues with what's going on with the insurance issues, the nightmare that is. Anyone who has been down that rabbit hole knows how maddening and frustrating that is. Insurance companies are supposed to be helping you.

And then the policies that come out of Washington, like the medical device tax, where we're taxing innovation and slowing down the evolution of what we're trying to do to provide healthcare for better lives. Why are we taxing innovation and great new medical devices and letting the people who are creating the problems like the cigarette companies and the alcohol companies, the fast food companies, get away? They're the ones that should be paying for the healthcare problems that are often their own fault.

 Government agencies are supposed to help, not hinder, and patients have the most powerful voice. We are the ones who are living it. And 1 day, everybody is going to be a patient too. Nobody is getting out of this world without going down that road, and that's why the fight to make it better, to make it real, to personalize it. We, as a country, have to have better public and social policies to take care of people when things go wrong, when the ball bounces the other way. That's what the Better Way Back program is about and why I'm the proudest guy in the world to be a part of it.

MassDevice: What were your thoughts on the medtech industry before you got involved with NuVasive?

BW: I was not part of that word. My injuries were to my feet, to my wrists and arms and face. When my ankles were fused, those were bolted back together.

There's nothing more fragile than the spine. Unlike a leg or an arm, the spine requires constant work for the rest of your life. Never look at it as physical therapy or rehabilitation. You have to look at it as life and the constant attention to detail to keep moving and keep that core strong. You have to give yourself every chance possible.

MassDevice: When did you first talk to NuVasive and meet the people who created the technology?

BW:  It was well after my procedure, which was on February 8, 2009, and I saw [NuVasive CEO] Alex Lukianov for the first time about 1.5 years later. I met Alex through [former NFL player] Rolf Benirschke.

Rolf and I have been lifelong friends. I didn't tell anyone about my surgery. I was brought up in a world where you didn't whine, you didn't complain, you don't make excuses – just go out and get the job done. I was on television every day and then I was gone, but I didn't tell anyone I was going to have surgery.

MassDevice: What other alternatives did you try before you had the XLIF surgery?

BW: I tried everything – stretching, yoga, chiropractor, massage. No one wants to have their spine operated on. No one is saying, "I can't wait to have my spine surgery."

I spoke to a friend who recently underwent the [XLIF] procedure. In a 5-minute conversation, he used the world "miracle" 15 times, and how incredible it is when they decompress your spine and they take the junk out and they straighten out your spine and stabilize it. The only way I can describe that nerve pain is, visualize your body being emerged into a vat of scalding acid that has an electrical current running through it and you can never get out and nothing makes it go away. Then you wake up from the surgery and it's gone, and you just say, "Oh my God, thank you." Before is tears of desperation and the world spinning horrifically out of control. Afterwards those tears become tears of joy.

That's why I'm here today, because this works. These people who have revolutionized spine surgery, these people have given up their lives to help others. And what greater purpose is there in life?

It's staggering how it impacts you. Everyone who is on their way back becomes an absolute evangelist, because we're overcome by how fantastic this feels.

I have no pain. I have no medication. It's a miracle.

MassDevice: How would you describe yourself, as patient evangelist, as a spokesman? 

BW: I'm a patient ambassador. The best way to find out where you want to go is to talk to someone who is on the way back. When you go on a walk in the wilderness, through the mountains, there's the stacks of rocks of the people who have been there before. Those are there to let you know that you're on the right path. What we do as we go through our lives is we keep building those [markings] all over the world, and we are making a difference. I'm making the most remarkable and positive difference of my life. It's incredibly emotional and hard when people break down on the phone, but that's the power of patient advocacy.

We go and testify before the FDA and IRS and say, "C'mon, what are you thinking? There are people out here dying, who are desperate to get back, and you people are sitting here in your ivory towers thinking that these are just statistics and numbers. These are lives, and 1 day, it's going to be your life – and who's going to be there to fight for you?"

We do that on a constant basis, because our mission is to get it right, to make it logical, rational and to help. All these programs, the FDA, the insurance companies, the IRS, the tax code, are supposed to help people get better.

Life is easy when you're hot, when your jump shots are going down, but what happens when it falls apart? That's when you've got to have your team. My teammates made me who I am as a person, and even thought it's another world, it's still the same plan, the same structure, the same vision and the dedication. All the things that go into making a great team come into play in this whole new world, for me, but the stakes are so much bigger. This is life and death.

MassDevice: Do you think there's a natural connection between athletes and medicine?

BW: Yes, because we're pushing the limits. We're out there on the front lines, breaking the bones, tearing the ligaments, destroying our bodies, and then we want to get better and do more. That's the innovative process of evolution.

That's the same thing NuVasive is doing, the staggering turn of innovation with the minimally invasive surgeries that they're doing, all so beneficial in every way. And very soon, that's what all of spine surgery will be.

I had my first knee surgery in 1967. The length of that scar is staggering, but today they just poke a little hole in you. It's different, bigger, harder with the spine, but the advancements of thought and movement of much smaller incisions, and shorter hospital stays, all those things we associate with knees and shoulders ,are moving spine surgeries forward.

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