What’s remarkable about this video–aside from the soulful performance by Morristown’s Eric Hayes–is that it was recorded just five days after the musician underwent surgery so serious that he had called friends to say goodbye…just in case.
Snow shoveling had aggravated a decade-old neck injury, sending jolts of lightning-like pain through his body and numbing his right hand, making piano playing virtually impossible.
Without immediate surgery to repair his herniated disc, Hayes, 36, faced chronic agony and atrophy of his arm.
“He was in a bad spot,” said his surgeon, Dr. Dante Implicito, orthopedic director of the Spine Center at Hackensack University Medical Center.
With trepidation, Hayes agreed in late March 2018 to undergo a relatively new artificial disc implant technology called Mobi-C.
It was risky.
“I feared permanent damage to my vocal cords and paralysis of my hands and arms,” said Hayes, who has performed with Gavin DeGraw, Martin Sexton and the Allman Brothers Band, among others.
A go-getter who doesn’t scare easily, Hayes started a music school in 2016 and convinced friends to help him haul his piano up a cliff to record a music video.
Last year, he gave an inspirational TEDx talk about fighting back from his initial injury, a potentially crippling cervical fracture stemming from years of sports and repetitive stress at the keyboard.
“I thought, how can this be happening to me again, and what will I be like and feel like when I wake up?” he said.
On the eve of surgery, he phoned friends and relatives to prepare them for the worst, and to let them know he loved them. They gave him strength to face the unknown, he said.
THROUGH THE NECK
A traditional approach would have involved removing the damaged disc between Hayes’ C6 and C7 vertebrae and fusing the bones together–which would have limited his ability to twist his head.
Instead, the surgeon would enter through the front of the singer’s neck, replacing the disc with a plastic core, similar to material used in hip and knee replacements, sandwiched between a titanium brace anchored to the vertebrae.
Every singer knows that throat surgery ended Julie Andrews’ singing career. Implicito would be navigating between the two nerves that control Hayes’ vocal cords, gently moving the carotid artery and retracting his windpipe and food pipe to access the spine.
The surgeon’s field of operation was about the size of a postage stamp; he performed the 80-minute procedure while peering through a 15X microscope.
Some 50 wires from electrodes on Hayes’ scalp, hands and feet connected to a monitor designed to alert Implicito and his team if any maneuver was jeopardizing the patient’s nervous system.
“Thankfully, it went very well,” said Implicito. Incredibly, Hayes was sent home the same day.
Introduced in Europe in 2004, and approved in the U.S. in 2013, this artificial disc technology is emerging as the new “gold standard” for treating herniated discs, Implicito said. The surgery is faster, with a more rapid recovery, than spinal fusions, he explained.
Some bruising, soreness and swallowing difficulties are normal after-effects that diminish within weeks, the surgeon said.
Hayes has not yet regained full sensation in his right hand, and he certainly won’t be lugging pianos up cliffs anytime soon. But the lightning bolts of pain are gone and the future is promising.
“His prognosis is excellent. He’ll do great. I can’t wait to see him play live,” Implicito said.
Hayes can’t wait to give that performance. He knows what he will sing. Besides giving him renewed hope and an extra inch of height, the surgeon gave the musician an idea.
During a followup exam, Implicito encouraged Hayes to play the piano to speed his recovery. Hayes said the doctor then pointed to an MRI of the artificial disc, and reminded him:
“You are bionic now! Always remember that. You can be and do anything you put your mind to!”