High-tech back surgery gets fallen trapeze artist up and walking
by Jill Armentrout | The Saginaw News
Wednesday January 21, 2009, 8:13 AM
Circus performer Yelena Yust fell 30 feet and broke two vertebrae during a show last week, but a new kind of back surgery means one day she will take to the trapeze again.
Next time, however, the aerialist says she'll use a safety harness.
"Some performers use safety harnesses, but I never did," said Yust, 25, of Kazakhstan. "It looks great without one, but I will always use one now. I've had enough wow."
Dr. Gerald R. Schell performed surgery Saturday at St. Mary's of Michigan hospital, two days after Yust's fall at Wendler Arena. Her spinal cord wasn't injured. By Monday, she was walking down the hall in the hospital's neuro-intensive care unit.
Schell said he expects she will be able to continue her career. He used a new OptiMesh bone grafting system to fill the "burst" vertebrae with host bone material after inserting the nylon mesh pouch through a tiny incision in her back.
"Without this procedure, we would have had to put in rods nearly a foot long to stabilize the back," Schell said. "The bones were in bits and pieces. She's very lucky she wasn't paralyzed. Once the mesh is placed and expanded under pressure, it becomes harder than cement, but her back is still flexible. She's good as new. Her bone will grow all through it."
OptiMesh is used to treat bone degeneration from osteoporosis and in some traumatic injuries, Schell said. A representative for St. Paul, Minn.-based Spineology said Schell is one of a handful of surgeons using the technique in these kind of cases.
Yust has worked as a circus performer since she was 12, she said.
"I'm feeling much better, and I'm lucky to be alive and up walking," Yust said. "I had a great doctor."
She will wear an upper body brace for about three months and expects to leave the hospital within a few days to return home to Sarasota, Fla., where she lives with her "sisters" from the circus. Her family still lives in Kazakhstan.
Yust said she felt no pain when she landed on her back. She could move her feet and wanted to get up, she said. The boots and tights she wore with her costume caused her to slip during an upside-down move, she said.
Yust said she's never fallen before, though she'd seen other performers fall and suffer serious injuries, even broken backs. Some went back to work, she said.
"I should be ready to go back to work next year," she said.
Yust was a gymnast in Kazakhstan from age 6, then joined a group of six girls performing with a circus that traveled Europe. They moved to the United States six years ago.
"I'll probably work on the trapeze for the next 10 or 20 years and then go back to floor routines," she said. "We go all over the country. You meet people. It's fun."
Schell said the surgery took about 45 minutes, compared to four to six hours for the traditional rod surgery. He has performed about a dozen OptiMesh procedures on traumatic injuries in the past six months, he said, and does 15 to 20 surgeries a month using the technique to fuse collapsed discs between vertebrae.
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