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Back to the Ranch: Andy Hilkey’s journey to a pain free life

News, Orthopedic, Pain Management

As a rancher and volunteer in the community, Andy Hilkey leads a very active lifestyle and is always busy taking care of his farm and volunteering for the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team, which helps during disaster response such as fires and other emergencies. That’s why when he had debilitating pain in his ankle in February last year, he was not willing to take it sitting down. Turns out, his issues went beyond just a simple ankle pain. “I was painting a bedroom set for my granddaughter and I remember bending in an awkward way. It wasn’t my back that started hurting immediately, it was my foot,” Andy says.

His first step was an appointment to a podiatrist and a pain specialist. After many tests and a cortisone shot that didn’t help, he was referred to a physical therapist at Adventist Health Howard Memorial. It was then that he got the answers he had been waiting for. “Shannon, the physical therapist, was working on my ankle when she said, ‘It’s not your ankle, it’s actually your back. You have nerve damage. You need an MRI.’”

Hearing those words was not only was scary for Andy and his wife, but also emphasized the urgency of the situation. “At that point, I couldn’t do the simple, normal things, let alone doing ranching work. Sitting in a car for a drive was painful and had to be planned carefully. It came to a point that even standing up and walking a few steps without falling was impossible,” Andy describes. “I was in excruciating pain every day, even with pain medications. Nothing was helping.”

His condition also led him to the painful decision of retiring from his work with the Search and Rescue team, which he loved. “I loved helping out in the community and giving back in this way and it was hard watching and hearing about another missing person, and not being able to be part of the action and being able to help.”

After many tests and an MRI, Dr. Yoshihiro Katsuura, spine specialist diagnosed Andy with a condition called spondylolisthesis. Spondylolisthesis can happen when one vertebra slips forward over another vertebra. Causes of spondylolisthesis can vary, but in Andy’s case, a trauma or fracture over his L5 vertebra caused the condition and the pain.

He was scheduled for surgery on October 23 to help correct his condition. To some, having surgery and a hospital stay during a pandemic can be scary: to Andy and his family, it was a blessing and an answered prayer. “In a normal year, the hospital would be busy and it might have been challenging to get an appointment so quickly, but they were able to get me in because it was at the height of the pandemic and people were cancelling because they were anxious about the virus.”

The weekend before his surgery, Andy and his wife had a nice dinner on the coast. Unfortunately, the romantic getaway made it more evident that he really needed to have surgery. “Even the 45-minute drive was excruciating,” Andy recalls. “We had to stop a couple of times since the pain was also affecting my bladder. It was definitely time to fix me.”

On the day of his surgery, Andy’s first experience was exactly what he expected at his local hospital. “I heard a voice who said, ‘Hey I know you! How’s your wife?’ It was the same nurse who cared for my wife during a previous surgery. Right then and there, I knew why we chose Adventist Health Howard Memorial,” Andy explains “Not only do they have a reputation for quality care, but it really helps when you know the people caring for you. It’s the family atmosphere, a feeling of trust and being comfortable.”

Five days after Dr. Katsuura performed Andy’s surgery, he was ready to come home. And the day could not come soon enough for Andy. He had a lot of plans now that he was pain-free. True to his rancher roots, the first order of business was feeding his horse. “One of the hardest things to deal with when I was in pain was not being able to feed my horses. That was part of my routine for the last 20 years. Going back to it and being able to get back to ‘normal’ was a huge relief.”

Being pain-free could not have come at a better time. Not only was he retired and able to have more time to focus on the ranch, he also had another granddaughter on the way. “Right after my surgery, my daughter visited and shared the great news that they were expecting in May,” Andy says with pride. “Now, I will be able to spend time with my new grandkid, chase her around and really enjoy this time. I’m grateful.”

Today, the future looks bright and Andy is thankful for the physicians and staff at Adventist Health Howard Memorial. “I could not have asked for a better experience. Dr. Katsuura was kind, compassionate and very good at answering our questions and keeping us informed. My nurses listened to our needs and advocated for me and always kept my needs a priority. I’m proud and thankful for our hospital.”

Learn more about our spine program by calling 707-459-6115. To get to know Dr. Yoshishiro Katsuura, visit: