David Cooper: Medical marvel
Jerry Crasnick [ARCHIVE]
June 2, 2013
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The career-ending injury can be a bolt from the blue or a relentless series of setbacks that make a player throw up his hands and cry "uncle." For Corey Koskie and Mike Matheny, the end came in the form of lingering concussion problems. Brandon Webb spent the better part of four years flirting with comebacks before persistent shoulder issues forced him to retire in February.

For others, the ending comes in a flash. Dave Dravecky broke his arm throwing a pitch. Bryce Florie was done, for all practical purposes, after taking a line drive off the face in 2000. And James Rodney Richard never threw another pitch in the majors after suffering a stroke at age 30.

David Cooper traveled a mysterious middle ground in his brush with baseball mortality. In the span of a few months, the former Toronto prospect was listed as day to day with a back injury, then given indications that he might never play again. He visited numerous doctors in a seemingly futile search for answers and was released by the Blue Jays in March before an innovative surgery helped restore his health and start him on the road to recovery. At age 26, he is now a firm believer in medical miracles.

"I don't ever wish this experience on anybody," Cooper said. "But I feel like I was put here at the right time. If this happens to anyone else -- whether it's an athlete or not -- they can have a solution so they don't have to live a life filled with pain."

Things were looking up late last summer for Cooper, the 17th overall pick in the 2008 MLB draft out of UC Berkeley. He was coming off a monster season with Toronto's Triple-A Las Vegas club, and the Jays were ready to give him a shot at winning the first-base job with the big club. Scouts were skeptical that Cooper would ever hit with prototypical corner infielder power. But Lyle Overbay, James Loney and other first basemen with similar skill sets have enjoyed successful careers. And for those who dream big, there's always the Mark Grace model.

But it's hard to swing the bat with authority when the slightest twist of your torso is enough to make you cry out in agony.

In a game against Detroit on Aug. 22, 2012, Cooper laced a line drive to right field for a hit off Anibal Sanchez. Jeff Baker retrieved the ball quickly and relayed it to second baseman Omar Infante, who fired to Prince Fielder as Cooper recovered from losing his footing and lunged back into first base to beat the tag.

When Cooper watches the video, he sees himself breathing heavily, through gritted teeth, as Toronto broadcaster Buck Martinez describes the play that just unfolded. It's the quintessential out-of-body experience.

"I looked at it a couple of times," Cooper said. "It's kind of weird. The adrenaline was flowing, and it took about 30 seconds to a minute for me to feel anything. Then it was pretty painful after that. It was a very sharp, stabbing pain, and I couldn't take a deep breath. It was hard to stand up tall, and I had no ability to twist [my body]."

The Blue Jays pronounced Cooper day to day with a jammed neck and upper-back spasms, but the ensuing weeks and months brought only setbacks and disappointment. An MRI in September revealed the presence of a herniated thoracic disk that was compressing his spinal cord, and rest was prescribed. But when Cooper tried to swing a bat in January, the persistent pain told him something was seriously out of whack.

Several doctors told him his best option might be to wait in hopes that the damaged disk would eventually retract and take the pressure off his spinal cord. Or he could try Plan B and visit Dr. Curtis Dickman, a Phoenix-based neurosurgeon with a track record for healing people in his predicament.

With a single phone call, Cooper found the man who became his guardian angel and baseball savior. Nine months after the initial onslaught of bad news, a surgically repaired Cooper is working out in Phoenix with an eye on playing later this season or at the very least resuming his career in 2014.

Who knows? Before this ordeal is through, he might be the Tommy John of back surgeries.

Career-saving surgery

Herniated disks are relatively common, but the vast majority occur in the lumbar region, in the lower spine. The next most common disk herniations are located in the cervical region, in the neck. In both cases, doctors typically go in through the neck or low back to make the necessary repairs.

Cooper was among the unfortunate 1 to 2 percent of back patients to suffer from a herniated disk in the thoracic region, in the chest cavity. That complicates matters considerably, since the thoracic spine is surrounded by the rib cage. When a herniated thoracic disk compresses the front of the spinal cord, it requires a surgeon to enter through the front of the chest rather than the back.

The open surgical procedure, known as a thoracotomy, sounds like something out of a medieval torture chamber or the Mel Gibson movie "Braveheart." It requires an 18-inch incision in the chest wall and the removal of a rib, which allows the surgeon to pry open the chest cavity to gain access to the damaged disk. The long-term fallout can be severe, from pneumonia to chronic pain to lung complications and extended recovery periods.

When Cooper listened to doctors describe the procedure, it seemed almost "surreal." The only sliver of hope came when several specialists -- including Dr. Robert Watkins, the renowned California spine surgeon -- steered him in Dickman's direction.

Dickman, who works out of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, is a true renaissance man. He's a writer, a painter, an Ironman triathlete, and a guitarist and saxophone player whose band, Crosstown Traffic, has helped raise more than $9 million for Arizona charities. He treated Billy Wagner when the former Astros closer took a Kelly Stinnett line drive off the head in 1998, and made national headlines in 2003 when he helped save an 18-year-old patient whose skull was ripped from his cervical spine in a gruesome automobile accident.

In the early 1990s, Dickman became a pioneer for his work with an endoscope, a medical device consisting of a long, thin tube with a light and a high-resolution camera that transmits surgical pictures to a TV screen. It's an imaging tool that provides illumination, magnification and visualization of the anatomy to allow for much less invasive forms of surgery. The endoscopic technique for treating thoracic disk herniations is called a thoracoscopy, or thoracoscopic microdiscectomy.

Dickman performs about 12 to 15 thoracic disk surgeries each year with the endoscope and has about 150 on his résumé. His initial consults with Cooper told him the ballplayer was a prime candidate for the procedure.

As Dickman explains, the spinal cord is normally shaped like an oval, and is...
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