Spine tumor

Robot-assisted spine surgery removes Zach’s tumor

Zach Yosick smiling outside.

Zach Yosick was 17 when he began to experience intense episodes of shaking in his legs – a condition called clonus that is linked to his cerebral palsy. There were times when Zach was shaking so much, he could barely hang on to his chair. At the same time, he was experiencing increasing pain in the lower-to-middle part of his back.

A full-body MRI revealed the source of Zach’s back pain – a large tumor on his spine called a schwannoma.

Zach was immediately referred to Dr. Andy Stadler, a UW Health pediatric neurosurgeon at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison.

“Zach had a large tumor in his lower back that started inside of the spine but extended outside of the spinal column, too,” says Dr. Stadler. “It was pushing on several nerves in the bottom of his spinal cord, causing Zach pain in that area.”

Although Dr. Stadler suspected the tumor was not cancerous, he wanted to remove it because of the likelihood it would keep growing, perhaps leading to new problems with Zach’s bladder or bowel. Surgery was recommended, and it would not be a routine operation.

Zach with Dr. Stadler, who performed his surgery.
Zach with Dr. Stadler, who performed his surgery.

“It would be major surgery,” says Dr. Stadler, “but no matter how involved it is, we always want to do the smallest surgery necessary to do the job right. This provides the patient with a shorter recovery and less pain. We also want to spare the patient from any permanent loss of motion or function that could ensue from moving nearby muscles or ligaments around during the operation.”

New robot made spine surgery more precise

Fortunately, the timing for Zach’s surgery was perfect, because American Family Children’s Hospital had recently acquired new technology – called the Mazor X Stealth Edition robotic guidance platform -- that allows surgeons like Dr. Stadler to perform extraordinarily precise spinal fusion surgery in very small spaces, such as the part of Zach’s spine where he would be operating. American Family Children’s Hospital was the first hospital in Wisconsin to obtain the Mazor X, and one of a handful of hospitals in the Midwest that have been using it.

“Mazor X is a robotic technology that allows us to plan every step of the surgery before it starts. It not only helps us determine where every screw and rod will go but also the optimal and most precise pathway each screw will take before we drill it,” says Dr. Stadler.

Without the Mazor X, it would have been very challenging to precisely drill each screw into the small area of Zach’s spine where Dr. Stadler planned to operate.

“This technology made a huge difference in Zach’s outcome,” says Dr. Stadler. “It ensured we could do -- with utmost precision – the smallest amount of surgery necessary to remove Zach’s tumor and improve his quality of life with minimal risk of complication.”

Just three weeks after surgery, Zach resumed his physical therapy. He also was able to stop using prescription-strength pain relievers, needing only Tylenol by this point.

Zach quickly bonded with Dr. Stadler

“Like most people, the idea of surgery made Zach anxious, but this experience was, hands down, among the best hospital visits in his life,” says Jean. “He really likes Dr. Stadler, who connected with Zach right away, easing his anxieties and taking the time to answer his questions in great detail.”

Zach was told to expect a seven-day hospital stay, but things went better than expected when Dr. Stadler discovered that the tumor was merely pushing against – not attached to -- the spinal cord and nerves. This was very good news, and Zach went home just three days after surgery.

Because of his cerebral palsy, Zach uses a power wheelchair to get around, but occasionally uses a walker for shorter distances. In October 2020, he received his Eagle Scout rank and in June 2021, he graduates from Middleton (Wis.) High School. Zach will attend UW-Madison beginning in fall 2021 to study Computer Science. He also loves languages, including Spanish and his latest linguistic challenge – teaching himself Chinese. One day, he plans to travel internationally and put his language skills to work in places like Spain, Latin America or China.

“People who are quick to judge on first impression often don’t realize how bright Zach is,” says Jean. “But those who take the time to get know him become very loyal to Zach and appreciate how much more there is to him than a kid in a wheelchair.”

Dr. Stadler took plenty of time getting to know Zach, and the two of them bonded right away.

“That meant just as much to Zach as what Dr. Stadler did for him surgically,” says Jean.