For Stuart Baker, flying was life. After beginning his career as a flight attendant, Stuart eventually earned a pilot’s license and flew for a major airline. But by age 40, this native of Winchester, Virginia, had torn his right rotator cuff twice, grounding his ability to fly.
It took seven years, three surgeries and extensive rehabilitation for Stuart to recover use of his right arm. Then, he damaged his left rotator cuff. But this time, he found Mayo Clinic.
Stuart’s first injury came in the early 1990s. After tossing a heavy suitcase full of books, he experienced crippling pain in his right shoulder. He opted not to see a physician, hoping it would heal on its own. Six months passed, and the pain only worsened, so he made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon.
An MRI showed Stuart had a severely torn rotator cuff, a group of four tendons that connect to a muscle to create a "cuff" or capsule surrounding the shoulder joint. The tendons provide stability to the shoulder, while the muscles allow the shoulder to rotate.
Rotator cuff tears are common, and repetitive use or subsequent damage often make these injuries worse. Physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, and steroid injections can treat many rotator cuff tear symptoms without surgery. However, if pain continues, weakness increases or mobility in the arm is limited, surgical treatment may be needed.
In Stuart’s case, the tendons were so damaged that he required immediate surgery. Unfortunately, the procedure wasn’t successful, and it froze his arm.
“The act of bending and pulling the arm back was extremely painful,” Stuart recalls. “And forget about sleeping on that right shoulder.”
For six months, Stuart underwent physical therapy to increase his range of motion. Fortunately, he was able to make enough progress that he could return to flying in about nine months.
For two years, Stuart continued to cruise through the sky. But that ended aboard a Valentine’s Day flight in 1994, when an encounter with an unruly passenger resulted in a second rotator cuff tear.
Stuart vividly recalls the situation, noting that rules for disorderly conduct were vastly different in the ‘90s than they are today. “Five minutes after takeoff, a drunken man about twice my size was harassing passengers,” he says. “We attempted to move him with the on-board wheelchair, but the wheel got hung up on the rail when we lifted. It was hard denying what happened when that familiar spike of pain thrust into my shoulder.”
Stuart consulted a different physician for his second injury, but even after undergoing surgery again, along with physical therapy, his pain persisted.
“People 10 feet away could hear my shoulder grind,” Stuart describes. “The pain in my nonfunctional, lifeless arm was unbearable.”
A third physician diagnosed Stuart with damage to his long thoracic nerve, a branch of neck nerves that supplies muscles in the chest wall. Together, the long thoracic nerve and these muscles allow the arm to move forward or overhead. A new and more extensive surgical approach was recommended to repair the damage. But Stuart decided to forgo the suggested tendon transfer, opting for a traditional procedure. He was told he would never have full use of his arm.
“Although there still was pain, it was tolerable, and I could move my arm,” Stuart says. “You learn to live with what you have and be thankful you still have it. After years of physical therapy, I regained 70-percent use of my right arm.”
Given the extent of his injuries, Stuart’s flying days were behind him. “I had logged 26,000 hours as a flight attendant and pilot. Flying was out of the question. I had to do something else,” he says.
He and his wife, Mary Ruth, started their own business. They moved to a farm in Ocala, Florida, where they tended horses and Stuart enjoyed other hobbies, including motorcycle riding. But on a February evening in 2013, Stuart tripped while throwing hay for the horses, landing on his left shoulder.
Concerned after all of his past shoulder injuries, Stuart consulted a local physician and requested an MRI. The physician didn’t think that was necessary. At the recommendation of a friend, Stuart called Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Twelve days later, he made the two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast to Mayo’s Florida campus to see Cedric Ortiguera, M.D., in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery.
“Dr. Ortiguera changed my life,” Stuart says. “I saw him on a Friday, and he rearranged his schedule so I was in emergency surgery a few days later. Turns out I completely ripped three of the four muscles in my left rotator cuff and snapped a tendon.”
It was a severe case, according to Dr. Ortiguera. “The tears were significantly larger than what we commonly see, making this a complex case,” he says. “After the procedure, Mr. Stuart needed extensive physical therapy to increase his range of motion.”
Six months after surgery, Stuart had regained significant mobility in his arm.
“I could reach up and touch the top of a door. But even more amazing, there was no pain, just a little tightness,” Stuart says. “On the first and only try, Dr. Ortiguera repaired worse damage in my left shoulder than I ever had in the right, and that right shoulder was repaired multiple times.”
With persistence, determination and physical therapy, Stuart was eventually able to regain 100 percent mobility and function of his left arm.
“Everyone at Mayo was professional, informative and courteous,” says Stuart. “I remember Dr. Ortiguera introducing me to the surgical team and reminding the staff to be very careful when lifting me due to the extent of the injury. You get the best of the best multidisciplinary team at Mayo Clinic.”
Today, Stuart is once again actively engaged in the hobbies he enjoys. Though not flying, he is back to riding both motorcycles and horses.
“I never thought I’d manage another bike again, but here I am with a Harley about to enjoy Bike Week in Daytona. I also can ride my horses again,” he says. “Dr. Ortiguera is an incredible and unbelievable surgeon who performs miracles.”