By Amanda DeVos
Spinal surgery used to involve inserting bulky rods and screws. Now spinal implants are no bigger than cuff links.
Dr. Henry F. Fabian, Jr., a local orthopedic spinal surgeon, invented the world’s first truly minimally invasive spinal implant. This titanium alloy implant, called XYcor, provides a fusion of two vertebrae.
Fusions are not a new concept; about 2000 fusions are performed each year in the United States. But Fabian’s innovative design is changing the way they are done.
The XYcor, launched in 2007, is smaller than a bullet and measures only half the width of other implants – which makes surgery easier and safer. A small incision is made in the back, and the implant is inserted through an inch-wide tube that sneaks around the spinal cord. Once in place between the vertebrae, an internal cabling system unfolds the implant to approximately the size of a quarter. The larger surface area stimulates bone growth around the implant, which takes away movement – and hence, pain – from the diseased segment.
Patients at the Spine Center of Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley Medical Center were the first in the world to receive this implant. Since 2008, Fabian has performed 69 fusions and hasn’t had any complications, failures or infections.
Ann McArthur, one of Fabian’s former patients, had a herniated disk that made even sitting uncomfortable. Within days of her surgery in 2009, the familiar numbness and pain disappeared and hasn’t returned.
“The implant is awesome,” McArthur says. “It was a godsend, really. I’d 100 percent recommend Henry to anyone.”
Marcus Orr received an implant in 2011, and for the first time in his 19 years as a miner, he can work without shooting pain in his legs – which was caused by breaking his back as a child.
“One of the biggest joys is seeing a concept drawn on a piece of scrap paper come to fruition in a satisfied patient,” Fabian says. “It’s worth more than gold to see them pain-free and off narcotics and enjoying life again.”
The most common candidates for this treatment are those with degenerative disk disease, arthritis or herniated disks. Nevertheless, Fabian recommends at least six months of non-surgical methods of healing first, and only if those fail to relieve pain and if the patient has become narcotic dependent will he recommend surgery.
“People who have back pain come looking for a magic silver bullet that will solve all their problems, but we are first going to emphasize physical therapy, posture and Pilates,” explains Fabian.
Fabian has devoted more than 25 years to developing better surgical techniques. In 1985, he completed his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and immediately started a graduate program in biomedical engineering at Ohio State University, while working to develop spinal implants at Danninger Medical Technologies, Inc. After one year of the program, he decided to obtain his doctor of medicine degree, after which he completed a general surgery internship, a residency in orthopedic surgery and spine fellowships in Colorado and Germany.
He served as the medical director of the Ohio Spine Institute from 1996-2004. Between 2002-2004, Fabian earned an executive master’s of business administration, and teamed up with four fellow students to create a business plan for Vertebration, Inc. with a mission to develop better spinal implant systems. In 2004, Vertebration earned the $89,000 top prize in Fisher’s business plan competition and won “Fortune” magazine’s small business competition.
Around this time, Fabian happened to notice an ad YVMC ran in “The Spine Journal” looking for a spinal surgeon. Fabian made the call, and in 2004, he moved his practice to Steamboat with his wife, Tawnya Anne, and their daughter, Hunter Grace.
“I have been very, very pleased with YVMC,” Fabian says. “This is a better environment than almost any around the world. Plus, the patients I treat here are athletic and motivated to get better.”
Fabian’s expertise is constantly called upon in his roles as a spinal practitioner, the CEO of Vertebration, and the medical director of the Spine Center of Steamboat Springs and of YVMC’s new Mobility Spine Program. But he says this is the work he has wanted to do since he was five years old.
Although Fabian is based in Steamboat, he trains spinal surgeons from around the world. In 2011, he spoke at an international scientific conference in Berlin, Germany. Currently, there are doctors in Texas and Chicago using his new implant, and he hopes it will soon be available across Asia and Europe.
Meanwhile, he enjoys life in Steamboat and continues to dream of ways to make spinal surgery the best it can be.
“Intellectual integrity is very important to me in this whole process,” said Fabian. “The ultimate goal is to make the process even less invasive, less painful and with less recovery time.”