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ST. PAUL (WCCO) — It could be the first-ever surgery of its kind — where a man’s leg was actually transplanted onto his spine — and it only came about because of an extraordinary way the patient met his doctor.
“You look fantastic. You look fantastic,” said Dr. Robert Morgan, an orthopedic surgeon at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
“Thank you a lot, doc. I can’t thank you enough for where I am right now,” said Dr. Morgan’s patient, Ed Benson.
Benson had given up hope recently that he’d survive. He’s been a paraplegic since a shooting in the mid 60s. His skin was breaking down, and infections inside his body were getting worse. Other doctors told him that there was nothing more they could do to save him, after 14 surgeries to repair the lower portion of his spine which was disconnected at the pelvis.
“I was devastated,” Benson said, about the terrible news.
He put together a will and organized his finances for his wife since he believed that he’d be gone soon. Benson entered hospice in Arizona.
“We came to the acceptance of dying,” he said.
Benson was convinced he was dying, but not everyone was convinced he actually was.
“I go, ‘Really? You don’t sound like you’re dying to me,’” said Morgan, regarding an early conversation with him. “He says, ‘I don’t feel like I’m dying.’”
Morgan heard about Benson’s story through a prayer chain. Benson’s relative wrote that they would be “so grateful” for prayers, adding that he needed “all the prayers” he could get.
That relative sent the email to fellow parishioners at Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park. Morgan and his wife got that prayer request. They just happen to be in the parish, too.
“And I looked at that, and I thought, ‘certainly me and my family will pray for him. We’ll all pray for him. But I may actually know some people here who can fix him,’” Morgan said.
Though skeptical, Benson thought he’d take the chance. So he left hospice, bound for Minnesota, bound for what he hoped would be a better life.
“There have been people who attempted this procedure before, and the patient had either bled to death on the table or died of infection later,” said Morgan, who added that there were definite risks with the procedure that he and his medical team at Regions Hospital were going to perform on Benson.
He operated on Benson’s lower spine, the focal point of the surgery, Morgan said. Prior surgeons added a metal cage, screws and rods, but all were infected and falling apart. There was a big hole, so Benson couldn’t sit up or move.
“This bone was completely gone, all the way around. It was completely disconnected,” Morgan said.
He and his team removed Benson’s left leg and actually connected it to his spine.
“We had that key bone with a blood supply and artery going to it and vein from it, and we put that into his spine, with all the muscle of his leg, all the skin of his leg which is still there, and we were able to close up the whole wound and reconnected things,” Morgan said.
Three months following surgery, new bone is forming. Titanium screws and rods are reconnecting the spine. The spine is back where it should be. Morgan believes Benson’s surgery was the first in the world.
Morgan credits his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan for giving him the knowledge to do the surgery. He was an orthopedic surgeon in the Navy.
Morgan said that Benson is not actually dying, not today. In fact, he’s making progress. He’s slowly moving around.
Benson works with Regions Hospital’s Occupational and Physical Therapists to rebuild muscles he lost while lying in hospice and in recovery from surgery.
“It’s all about what we’re about, making him as independent as we can,” said Cathy Jaqua, an occupational therapist.
Benson is very thankful for the prayers he was given and the extraordinary way he met the doctor who has changed his life. It’s a lifelong bond brought together by the power of prayer.