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Mike Neel OrthoMemphis | Click Magazine

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As Memphis’ foremost orthopaedic oncologist, Dr. Mike Neel has pioneered changes in a myriad of procedures that were once guaranteed to end in amputation. Neel specializes in limb salvation and the diagnosis and treatment of various kinds of bone cancer. Through his treatment and research, he has saved countless lives and limbs in the battle against osteosarcoma and other forms of malignant bone growth.

Neel’s role as one of less than 150 orthopaedic oncologists in the country attracts patients in need of highly specialized care. With the aid of a team of nurse practitioners, he has divided his time as an orthopaedic specialist between OrthoMemphis and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for 19 years. “It’s about a 50/50 split,” Neel says. “It’s a challenge, but I have a lot of people to help me bridge the two worlds.”

Neel’s work alongside 16 other specialists at the OrthoMemphis clinic in East Memphis consists of surgical procedures to remove malignant bone tumors, while avoiding amputation in the process. Limb-sparing procedures at this location are often performed on adults seeking total hip and knee replacements, as well as those with oncological issues such as metastatic tumors associated with other forms of cancer that may have spread to the skeletal system. “With adults, the orthopaedic problems are usually secondary to their primary cancer,” he says. “We see a lot of patients with other forms of cancer, where it has spread to the bone.”

While much of Neel’s work at OrthoMemphis focuses on adult reconstructive surgery, his time at St. Jude is spent developing new and innovative surgical techniques and methods of treatment for younger patients. At St Jude, Neel deals with the removal of malignant tumors, as well as the application of various prostheses and management of complications associated with leukemia and subsequent chemotherapy.

In adolescents, the problem usually begins within the musculoskeletal system in the form of malignant tumors caused by osteosarcoma, the most frequently contracted form of bone cancer in the United States. Neel’s research also deals with Ewing’s Sarcoma, another form of bone cancer that primarily affects the arms and legs. Both are especially prevalent in younger cancer patients.

Aside from the research and obvious age discrepancy in patients, Neel’s job at St. Jude carries a few added bonuses. “I tend to get more hugs from the kids, I think,” he says.

Neel’s other duties include treating bone lesions and making strides to shape larger invasive surgeries into smaller more manageable procedures with less lingering trauma. However, simple pain management is often key for the day-to-day rigors of treatment. “Sometimes, you’re doing nothing more than making the patient comfortable,” he says.

In 2005, Neel performed a first-of-its-kind surgery involving the implementation of the bone transport rod, a high-tech tool that eschews the traditional bone-graft method in lieu of a state-of-the-art metal rod. This procedure is unique in that it allows for a patient’s prosthesis to grow along with them by moving the tumor along the bone and adjusting by centimeters as it scales to a patient’s exact height. “We’re able to move the defect down the bone – like a napkin ring – and new bone is filled in behind it,” Neel says.

Patients return periodically for a non-invasive lengthening procedure. This provides newly formed native bone that adapts to a patient much easier and presents a safer, less invasive alternative to traditional bone grafts. The recepient, a young osteosarcoma sufferer, eventually made a complete recovery. “Right now, he’s back to lifting weights, jumping rope, and doing everything he wants as an 18 year-old kid,” Neel says.

Stories like this have become the hallmarks of Neel’s career. A native Memphian and father of two, the University of Tennessee graduate is familar with the characteristics that make a superior surgeon. “The most important quality is somewhere between compassion and energy – nobody goes into this business without a healthy does of both,” says Neel.

Pain management with a focus on comfort seems to be the central theme of OrthoMemphis, which provides a variety of services in addition to Neel’s oncological offerings, including treatment of the spine, hand, foot, and athletic injuries. “We’re big enough to provide a lot of services, but small enough to have a lot of professional interaction among the different surgeons,” Neel says.

 

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