A bone the size of a small boulder sits on the desk of Thomas Schuler like an oversized paperweight. It’s a whale’s vertebrae that he found washed up on the beach during a vacation a few years back.
For a spinal surgeon who’s dedicated his life to healing back problems and pain, the giant disc from the world’s largest mammal is more than a souvenir. It’s a symbol of his career, beginning humbly in 1992 when he and one other employee opened the doors of the Virginia Spine Institute, which has now grown into an internationally recognized center with 50 employees and three doctors.
Dr. Brian Subach and Dr. Michael Hasz round out the Institute’s Board Certified, Fellowship-trained doctors specializing in neck and back problems.
“Now we’re on the forefront in advancing therapy and surgery in spinal healthcare,” said Schuler, adding that the center has performed the first lumbar artificial disc replacement and the first cervical artificial disc replacement in the Washington, D.C. area.
There is no shortage of people who need their services. Neck and back problems are all too common in the United States. More than 85 percent of the population will suffer from severe neck or back pain during their lifetime. About 8 percent of those people, or 25 million Americans, develop chronic pain.
FOR NEARLY 15 years, the Institute has focused on spinal disorders, trying to restore normal pain-free function and mobility in the “simplest and safest fashion possible.”
“Eighty-five percent of our patients are treated non-operatively,” said Subach, crediting the Institute’s multi-faceted approach.
Because of all its success, the Institute was recently forced to change locations. Last June, the Institute moved from a 4,400 square foot office near Reston Hospital to a 26,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility at the intersection of Wiehle Avenue and Sunset Hills Road.
Their hard work — the doctors often chair conferences and author publications — continues to pay off. The Institute has built a reputation that attracts patients from all over the world. “People have flown in from South Africa, Singapore, Ghana, the Virgin Islands,” said Hasz, naming a few of his patients’ origins. But most of their patients, Hasz said, are from Northern Virginia.
In addition, the Institute boasts an in-house physical therapy center and its own spinal research foundation. On any given day, the doctors and the physical therapists see about 100 patients, some well known.
“I’ve provided spinal healthcare for the [Washington] Redskins since 1993,” said Schuler. Charles Haley, a former Redskin, wrote, “God Bless the ‘Back Man,’” in a message made out to Schuler on a football displayed in the lobby.
DURING A RIBBON-cutting on March 11 to celebrate the Institute’s new facility, the three doctors stood in a line behind the ribbon. After the doctors posed for a few pictures, a physician’s assistant stepped in holding a sterling silver tray with a scalpel on top. Wielding a familiar instrument, Schuler made a ceremonious incision, cutting the red ribbon with a steady flick of the wrist.