For more than a year, Mike LaBorde thought he had carpal tunnel syndrome. His left hand and arm often tingled and felt numb. He wore a brace for a while, but it didn’t help. Then he had carpal tunnel surgery, not once, but twice. The surgeries made no difference.
“I was quite aggravated that the surgery was not successful,” Mike says. “But I was told that nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. I just kept working and doing the best I could. And it kept getting worse and worse.”
When the symptoms didn’t fade, Mike’s primary care doctor suspected a herniated disc, so Mike had an MRI. What that test revealed changed everything.
A mass was growing inside Mike’s spinal cord. It looked like it could be cancer. His doctor recommended Mike travel from his hometown of Crosby, Minnesota, to Mayo Clinic for care.
“I’d heard a lot about Mayo Clinic, but I had never been there,” Mike says. “I asked my doctor, ‘If it was you, would you go there?’ He said, ‘I feel it’s the very best, and we are fortunate to have it in our state.’ That was good enough for me.”
When Mike arrived in Rochester, Minnesota, in August 2015, he feared the worst. His local care team told him the tumor in his spine likely was a persistent form of cancer that would be difficult to get rid of completely. He was prepared for chemotherapy and radiation therapy after surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. In addition, he had been told that he likely would need spinal fusion as part of the surgery.
Dr. Bydon explained to Mike that, due to the location of the tumor in the cervical portion of his spine, there was considerable risk for paralysis or significant weakness in his legs following surgery. Dr. Bydon also discussed with Mike that while spinal fusion may be necessary, it was also possible to avoid fusion by doing a laminoplasty — a surgical technique that allows the bones to heal in place. Finally, Dr. Bydon confirmed that removing the entire tumor may not be feasible.
“As he was telling me all this, it kept going through my mind that this was the beginning of the end,” Mike says. “I’d be dealing with it for the rest of my life. At the time, I was only 50 years old.”
Dr. Bydon was looking for a different outcome.
“When I first met Mike, he told me how he just wanted to go hunting in November,” says Dr. Bydon. “I told him that I would do everything in my power to make that happen.”
Surgery was scheduled for the following week. Mike went home for a few days and then returned to Rochester for more appointments. The day before surgery, he didn’t have anything scheduled, so Mike and his girlfriend decided to make a day of it at the Minnesota State Fair.
“I walked her feet off that day. We walked everywhere and looked at everything,” Mike says. “It was so good to be out in the fresh air and moving. Honestly, I didn’t know if I’d ever walk again after that.”
The next day, Mike rose early and arrived at Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester at 5:30 a.m. By 6 a.m., the team was getting him ready for the long procedure ahead. Mike recalls being quite nervous. One staff member in particular holds a distinct place in his memory for the comfort she provided that morning.
“Everyone I met at Mayo was respectful, positive and upbeat. But this lady was above and beyond,” Mike says. “She was part of the surgical team, and she could see I was scared. She came and stood by me and held my hand, and we talked. We talked about hunting and fishing — things she probably didn’t even care about. She stayed right there until they put me to sleep.”
He only wishes she knew how much that meant to him.
“She didn’t have to do that. But she did,” Mike says. “I wish I knew who she was, so I could say thank you. I know there’s a special place in heaven for her.”
After surgery, Mike began to wake up as the anesthesia wore off, and he wasn’t sure if he could believe the news he heard.
“When I first came to, I was very groggy. I couldn’t even open my eyes,” Mike says. “I heard Dr. Bydon talking. I asked, ‘How did it go?’ I felt his hand on my shoulder, and he said, ‘We got it all. Don’t worry. Everything is okay.’ After that, I fell right back to sleep.”
During the procedure, Dr. Bydon and his team were able to remove the entire mass from inside Mike’s spinal cord. An analysis of the tissue showed it was not cancerous. Instead, it was a rare intramedullary noncancerous tumor called a hemangioblastoma. Also, Dr. Bydon and his team were able to avoid spinal fusion for Mike by doing a laminoplasty. Because the tumor was completely removed, Mike didn’t need chemotherapy or any other additional treatment.
Mike went back home to Crosby two days after his surgery. Since then, he has returned to Mayo Clinic for several follow-up appointments with Dr. Bydon. Imaging tests have shown no regrowth of the tumor. The tingling and numbness in Mike’s arm have faded away. Recovery did take some time, though. At first, Mike’s activity was limited to slow walks.
“I went home and starting walking every day. It was hard. I was mostly shuffling along,” he says. “But I wanted to do it. I knew I wasn’t sick. I was healing. Really, it was all such a relief.”
“When Mike was getting ready to leave the hospital, I knew that we had accomplished several goals,” Dr. Bydon says. “We resected his entire tumor. We preserved his ability to walk. We avoided an unnecessary spinal fusion, and I was hoping that he would be able to go hunting that year.”
Over time, Mike was able to take up his hobbies again. Just two months after the surgery, he was pleased to make his annual deer hunt in the north woods.
“November is hunting season at home. I always go with my father and the rest of my family. It was a little tricky, but I was able to make it that year, too,” Mike says. “I could get around and sit in my stand. It was a successful hunt and a really positive thing for me.”
Throughout his medical evaluation and treatment, Mike continued in his job as a training director. Although at times he had to slow down, he says keeping up with work helped motivate him to keep going. Today, he’s back to work full-time.
From his vantage point of a life restored to normal, Mike reflects on his experience and his care at Mayo Clinic, and his chief emotion is one of gratitude.
“When I first went into Mayo’s beautiful Gonda Building, it was overwhelming to see people from all over the world,” Mike says. “The thing that stands out in my mind is that every employee seems happy to assist you, no matter who you are. They smile. They ask if you need help. They were all so professional, but they were friendly, too. It was uplifting.”
That made a frightening and stressful time a little easier to handle.
“I wish there was more I could do to show my gratitude than just say thank you. That hardly seems like enough,” he says. “Dr. Bydon and the whole team did a wonderful job. I’m so thankful.”