THP trooper continues recovery from risky spinal surgery

(WBIR - Monroe County) On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Lowell Russell seems to walk and talk just fine while strolling through the front yard of his Monroe County home. However, when the Sergeant with the Tennessee Highway Patrol turns around, the large bandage on the back of his neck and head shows just how much Russell has endured to keep a good head on his shoulders.

"I did not know surgeries could hurt so bad," said Russell. "This is my second major surgery, but I don't really remember the first one because I was still out of it from the crash."

In March 2012, Russell nearly died after a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the trooper's parked cruiser on the side of Interstate 40 in Knoxville.

"Basically, I was decapitated but my head didn't come off is what the doctors were saying because my skull was dislocated from my spinal cord," said Russell. "I'm really blessed to still be here."

For almost two years, Russell has made a slow and steady recovery from the devastating crash. However, the pain and stiffness in his neck has prevented him from regaining the mobility and range of motion needed to someday return to work at the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

A major physically limiting factor was the amount hardware fused to his vertebrae in order to support his spine.

"I was just so limited on my movement and pain was so rough, I was just trying to find something so I could get back to a normal life."

Russell found that something in San Francisco, California. That's where the only doctor in the country is located who has the expertise and willingness to attempt a risky new procedure that removes the metal from the trooper's backbone.

"We have some fantastic doctors and medical facilities in East Tennessee. We talked to the doctors here and Dr. Light out in San Francisco. The procedure was too risky for anyone locally to agree to attempt it. Dr. Light had done it before on another guy in law enforcement who had this type of neck injury so we arranged for me to have the surgery in California."

The photos following the surgery on February 28 revealed just how much hardware was needed to help Russell heal from the crash.

"I was shocked. I didn't think there was that much stuff in my neck. I've seen x-rays of my neck, but I didn't realize how much stuff was in there," said Russell. "There's this bag full of screws and hardware. A friend of mine joked that it looked like a bunch of lawnmower parts inside my neck."

The risk will hopefully pay off with the reward of increased mobility. It will be three to six months before Russell knows if the surgery was successful.

"It's going to be several weeks before I can start rehab. Right now I'm just trying to heal. I'm really sore, but it already feels a lot better with that stuff out of me than it did before."

Whatever the final result, Russell says the surgery was worth it if it improves his chances of returning to the job he loves.

"The highway patrol has been very supportive. I'll be happy doing whatever it is they want me to do as long as I get to wear that uniform," said Russell.

In the meantime, Russell stays busy with charitable work in his community. That includes raising money for local scholarships in honor of U.S. Marine Frankie Watson. Russell helped raise Watson, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.

"The scholarships are for high school students who are devoted to helping serve their communities," said Russell. "Helping and serving your community is something Frankie and I firmly believe in and devoted our lives to."

The second annual Frankie Watson Scholarship Benefit Ride is scheduled for April 5, 2014. You can find more details on the ride and how to donate to the scholarship fund at the event's Facebook page.


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