Elite rower achieves his dreams after back surgery

Stu McDonald rowing

Stu McDonald grew up enjoying the outdoors in Vail, Colorado, especially hiking and cycling with his family. He discovered a new sport his freshman year at the University of Chicago in 2015, after spotting a flyer for the University of Chicago Men’s Crew Team.

“The whole aspect of teamwork really appealed to me,” said McDonald, who is majoring in neuroscience and psychology. And when you row, he added, “it can feel like you’re flying.”

He quickly excelled, making the Varsity 8 team his first year. Later this summer, the 6-foot-1 senior will compete on the U.S. team at the 2018 World University Rowing Championships in Shanghai, China.

But it was a dream he almost didn’t realize. Just a few months after joining the team, McDonald was training on the ergometer — an indoor rowing machine — when he felt an excruciating pain and a pop in his back. He’d suffered a herniated lumbar disc.

He saw a physician and had physical therapy, but mostly he pushed through the pain, never finding relief. “There were a few practices where I’d take one stroke and pain would shoot down my back and legs,” he said.

McDonald made an appointment with Michael J. Lee, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Stu had a history of herniated discs in his lower back, which had been treated with physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications,” said Lee, who recommended nonsurgical options first. “We went with an epidural steroid injection, but it didn’t give lasting relief, so we talked about surgery, which I felt was his best chance to return to rowing.”

To be able to help Stu row competitively is exciting and a truly gratifying experience.

In fall 2017, McDonald underwent a lumbar microdiscectomy, a minimally invasive, outpatient procedure to repair two lumbar disc herniations. The discs are the soft “shock absorbers” between each bone of the spinal column. In an injury caused by physical exertion, such as McDonald’s, the inner material of the disc protrudes and applies direct pressure, irritating the nearby nerve roots and causing discomfort and pain, Lee said.

After the procedure, which typically takes less than an hour, patients can go back to near normal activity, but must limit heavy physical exertion for six weeks. McDonald’s symptoms improved almost immediately and six weeks later he was back on the ergometer.

Within about two months, he was just six seconds off his personal best during the team’s first time test after winter break. “So that was pretty good,” McDonald said. Today, he has no restrictions on his training and only a small, 2-centimeter scar from the incision.

Trish Brubaker, head coach of the University of Chicago rowing team, said she has never seen anyone recover so quickly from a back injury.

"Back injuries are a career killer in rowing,” Brubaker said. “I've had friends do a lot of long-term damage by trying to come back too quickly from a back injury.”

She had cautioned McDonald that he might need to put his elite rowing goals on hold for a year, encouraging him to apply for camps but to think carefully before committing. “But throughout the spring season, Stu was able to do all of the training. "It was the first season I've had with Stu where he wasn't complaining about pain,” she said. “When it came time for Stu to commit to a camp, I was completely surprised to find myself encouraging him to go."

McDonald is spending the summer at training camp in Michigan with his rowing teammates until they leave for Shanghai in August. “I think Dr. Lee is amazing,” McDonald said. “He was willing to do anything to help me.”

Lee, who co-directs the Operative Performance Research Institute at UChicago Medicine, is pleased with the results as well. “It’s distressing any time there’s the possibility of someone not being able to compete for their dream,” he said, “so to be able to help Stu row competitively is exciting and a truly gratifying experience.”

Orthopaedic Spine Care

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Michael Lee, MD

Michael Lee MD

An expert spine surgeon, Michael Lee, MD, treats spinal injuries, degenerative conditions and spinal deformity as well as complex tumors of the spinal cord.

Learn more about Dr. Lee