After a paralyzing injury, John’s spine care helped him make a speedy return to farming and a normal life

John McMillan at his farm
Photo courtesy of Chris DeBack—The Fayette County Union

Less than four months after a spine injury temporarily paralyzed him from the neck down, John McMillan was back to farming full-time.

McMillan credits his remarkable recovery to the spine care he received from orthopedic spine surgeon Andrew J. Pugely, MD, at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in the hours following his injury.

“The people at the hospital say my recovery was a miracle,” says John, 69, of Elgin, Iowa. “I believe the miracle was performed by Dr. Pugely, his team, and the staff in the ICU.”

In December 2018, John was weaning calves from their mothers when an agitated cow threw him over a gate. He landed head first. John stayed conscious, but he knew almost instantly that he was paralyzed.

He was transported to his community hospital, where staff prepared to fly him to a larger hospital via helicopter. John asked to be sent to UI Hospitals & Clinics, where his wife, Kathy, had recently had successful surgery on her lower back.

An MRI revealed compression in John’s spine that would require surgery. At 3 a.m. the following morning, Pugely began a six-hour surgical procedure to decompress the spine and fuse five vertebrae.

“It obviously went great,” John says.

Kathy says John started to get better almost immediately, even as the amazed ICU staff told her that for most patients, recovery from John’s injury is usually measured in years, not in days or weeks.

“But every minute of every hour, John got better,” she says.

Three days after the surgery, John was cleared to go home and begin his rehabilitation, which included regular consultations with UI physical medicine and rehabilitation physician Philip Chen, MD.

“We didn’t realize a spinal injury affects so many other things,” Kathy says. “John got sleep apnea. He also needed to see a kidney doctor. Dr. Chen was the director of all the referrals and got us to the people we needed to see.”

By the middle of March John was back at work, planting 800 acres of corn and beans.

Kathy says the genuine concern and helpfulness of everyone they encountered at UI Hospitals & Clinics played a role in John’s return to a normal life.

“We expected the hospital to be good—we’ve read all the ratings and everything,” Kathy says. “But the compassion and personal care, all the way through the departments, from the doctors to the cleaning people, really comes across. That’s obviously the philosophy of the hospital.”

Elgin, Iowa