Back Surgery Helps Busy Woodworker Get Back on His Feet

Rick Allain builds a jaguar from pieces of wood in his basement workshop
Rick Allain builds a jaguar from pieces of wood in the basement workshop of his home in Otterville, Missouri. Last summer, Allain couldn’t stand for long periods because of a pinched nerve in his back. After spinal decompression surgery at MU Health Care, Allain is pain-free.

When Rick Allain tries to watch a movie with his wife, he rarely makes it through more than 20 minutes. He just can’t sit still.

“There’s 10 other things I know I ought to be doing,” Allain said.

He can always find work to be done around his property in Otterville, Missouri, and he loves hobbies that let him work with his hands. They include making ball-point pens, building model airplanes and creating art out of scrap wood.

The woodworking hobby, called intarsia, is Allain’s real passion. He gets a pattern that resembles a paint-by-number set — wildlife and Western scenes are his favorites. He fills in the sections by precisely cutting and shaping as many as 3,000 pieces of wood and piecing them together into a very heavy jigsaw puzzle. No painting or staining is allowed, so one of the challenges is finding types of wood to match the colors.

“I pride myself on not buying anything,” said Allain, 62. “You can take wood that someone was going to burn, and you make it into something worthy of putting on a wall. I think it’s kind of cool to do something that other people might enjoy.”

He likes to come home from his job as an electrical supervisor, disappear into his basement workshop, turn on some country music and spend a few hours of quality time with his scroll saw. In May 2019, a back injury put his hobby — and his active lifestyle — on hold.

With rain in the forecast, Allain was determined to pitch all 200 bales of hay in the back of a flatbed trailer into his barn by himself. The act of repeatedly arching his back and tossing those 70-pound hay bales left him with excruciating pain shooting down his leg the next morning.

“I’d been working at this company for 20 years and hadn’t miss a day,” Allain said. “I took seven days off. That whole seven days was spent trying to find a doctor who would listen to me and do something.”

Allain’s primary care physician in Sedalia referred him to MU Health Care, whose Comprehensive Spine Center treats patients with common or complex problems. The spine team includes chiropractors, physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians, anesthesiologists, orthopaedic spine specialists and neurosurgeons.

Theodore Choma, MD
Ted Choma, MD

“We all are dedicated to the idea that we’re interactive, that we’re better together than by ourselves,” said orthopaedic surgeon Ted Choma, MD. “We meet at 6:15 on Friday mornings so we can share information and ask each other advice about cases.”

Choma diagnosed Allain’s problem as a pinched nerve in his lower back caused by arthritis.

“Arthritis was causing changes in the joints of his spine,” Choma said. “As some of those joints became bigger and knobbier, they crowded the passageways for the nerves. He was experiencing that with nerve pain and legs that wouldn’t let him walk and be up as much as he wanted to be. It was relatively easy for us to diagnose with the scans we have today and easy to be confident that we knew where this was occurring in his spine. The surgery is essentially to find where the nerves are being crowded and cut away the overgrown tissue so they’re not crowded anymore.”

Choma said MU Health Care spine surgeons perform the procedure, commonly called a spinal decompression, hundreds of times per year. He operated on Allain on Sept. 6. After an overnight stay in the hospital, Allain returned home. At a follow-up visit, he showed Choma a special intarsia project he made for the occasion: a tiger, to celebrate the University of Missouri mascot.

“The intricacy and accuracy it requires are impressive,” Choma said. “As a person who makes my living part of the time with my hands, I really appreciate when somebody can work with material like wood and make something beautiful like that.”

Choma said spinal decompression patients can resume normal activities within a month after surgery. Allain, true to form, rushed his recovery timeline a bit. He’s back to spending hours on his feet in his workshop creating art.

“I feel so much better,” Allain said. “I have all my strength, and I have no pain. I’m back to work, and with my wood art, I can stand in front of the saw for longer periods of time and get stuff done.”

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