There was a point in Tyler Lakin’s life when he struggled to put on a sock or a shoe without feeling unexplained pinching pain in his lower back. And that was before he had even turned 10. “He started complaining of back pain early,” says Tyler’s mother, Sabrina Lakin. Tyler is large for his age — the teen now wears a size 14 shoe today — so Sabrina says she was unsure whether his pain stemmed from growth spurts, or if it was more serious. But by about age 10, Tyler started showing more concerning signs, particularly during and after his Little League baseball games. “He would come home from a game and lay there and cry,” Sabrina says. “I just knew, this isn’t your normal back pain.” The mother and son from Flagstaff, Arizona, sought answers from a variety of health care providers. Some suggested he had bulging discs or deterioration in his spine. Tyler tried visiting physical therapists and chiropractors — all the while, excelling in baseball. The pain would sometimes subside, but it always came back. “I just pitched through the pain,” Tyler recalls.
This went on for years. Then, on June 24, 2016, Tyler was pitching a game when his back gave out and he fell forward. He was debilitated. Sabrina continued to advocate for more answers from area doctors. But after months of ineffective options, Tyler was often sweating profusely and had lost so much of his athletic-level appetite that he dropped 45 pounds. That’s when Sabrina brought Tyler to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where they met Jamal McClendon, MD, a neurosurgeon at Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s, and Department of Neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, Scottsdale. “Dr. McClendon talked with us for a long time,” Sabrina says. “It was exactly what I needed — somebody to really listen to what was going on. Dr. McClendon said he wanted to consider what he would do if this were his own son. He was amazing.”
It’s this approach to spine care — one of empathy and compassion — that makes Dr. McClendon a leading neurosurgeon at Barrow at Phoenix Children’s. “It goes a long way,” Dr. McClendon says. “I can only be myself. I interact with these patients’ parents and explain what I would do if I were in their situation.” Tyler was diagnosed with an L5-S1 disc herniation with spondylolisthesis from a bilateral spondylolysis. In other words, he had a slippage of his spine. Dr. McClendon recommended a surgical fusion. Tyler was throwing a baseball again just six weeks after the surgery. He was pitching competitively six months later. In fact, he was back on the same pitching mound on June 24, 2017, where his back gave out a year prior. And he’s no longer complaining of pain. “If I didn’t advocate for my son and we didn’t meet Dr. McClendon, we’d still be going through this,” Sabrina says. “Tyler is being looked at for scholarships now. For Dr. McClendon to step in the way he did — he went beyond. When he did that, I felt relieved.”
Dr. McClendon credits the level of unmatched service found at Barrow and Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “Patients are not treated as numbers here,” he says. “There’s a humanistic quality [here].
“When you wake up in the morning, there are some things you can’t really predict,” Dr. McClendon adds, “but by and large, there’s an overwhelming sense of greatness that comes through these doors, knowing that you’re going to help patients by fixing a problem not only physically, but also emotionally. Taking care of children is a great privilege. It’s enriching to be here.”
For information about our Comprehensive Pediatric Spine Program, call 602-933-3033 or 602-933-0975.