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VOL. 129 | NO. 123 | Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Against the Tide

Medtronic spinal device helps distance swimmer achieve aquatic feats

By Don Wade

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Medtronic’s Prestige Cervical Disc system has helped thousands of people, but none of them are quite like 56-year-old Doug McConnell.

In 2009, McConnell, who is from Barrington, Ill., learned he had a severely herniated disc between two cervical vertebrae. He had the surgery to get the Prestige Cervical Disc on Feb. 1, 2010, in Chicago.

Doug McConnell, seen swimming the English Channel in five-foot waves, had a Medtronic cervical disc inserted in his neck. He will be attempting to swim around Manhattan this weekend.


By August 2011, he had become the 48th person over the age of 50 to swim across the English Channel, covering the almost 30 miles in 14 hours and 18 minutes, with his opposition including heavy waves and darkness.

“He’s not your typical patient,” said Billy Albans, a senior marketing director at Medtronic.

McConnell’s journey started the morning he woke up and felt a “pinchy place” on the top of his shoulder blades. He thought, “No big deal; I’ll be back in the water in a day or two.”

But his condition worsened and when he sought medical opinions doctors did not tell him what he wanted to hear – he would need spinal fusion surgery and would have to make a dramatic lifestyle change.

It was at this point that McConnell’s wife, Susan, suggested they go to a couple of the teaching hospitals in Chicago for other opinions. That led to McConnell getting the cervical disc procedure done.

Still, he had to swim against the tide.

“I had to fight with my insurance company for a while,” he said.

McConnell had spoken with people who had had the more traditional spinal fusion procedures. Some of those people who tried to remain active, McConnell said, later would “blow out a disc above or below where the surgery was.”

“If I had a spinal fusion … they talk about losing eight to 10 degrees of motion for every level that is fused,” McConnell said. “I could have swam with the fusion, probably, but could I have swam 14 hours? I wouldn’t want to have tested it.”

McConnell followed his 2011 English Channel swim by conquering the Catalina Channel in September 2012. The Catalina Channel covers more than 20 miles of ocean separating the Island of Catalina from Southern California.

“It’s certainly a testament to the technology,” Albans said. “It’s allowed him to maintain motion.”

Now he is poised to finish the “Triple Crown” of swimming on June 28 by navigating the 28.5 miles around Manhattan in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Worldwide, it’s believed only 83 people have completed the Triple Crown.

Back in 2011, McConnell and his team started “A Long Swim,” a fundraising and awareness-building campaign, which has raised about $230,000 for scientific research programs at the Les Turner ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) Research Laboratories at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

McConnell’s father, David, fought against ALS for 14 years before his death.

“He’d always make jokes about how boring distance swimming was,” Doug McConnell said with a laugh. “He’d say, ‘what’s next – competitive paint-drying?’ He had a good sense of humor.”

For the English Channel Swim, Medtronic agreed to match the first $50,000 in donations. Medtronic has pledged another $10,000 for the Manhattan swim, McConnell said.

He says he expects to do the Manhattan swim in around nine hours, noting, “Two big legs of the swim are downstream so it swims more like it is 17 or 18 miles (instead of 28.5).”

But every swim brings its own challenges. While McConnell said he had “table-top calm” water for the Catalina swim, he incurred more than 200 jellyfish stings.

“Jellyfish were getting stuck on the nosepiece of my goggles,” he said.

In New York, he will be swimming in water that is dirty and heavy with commercial shipping traffic. Debris in the water will not be uncommon. McConnell won’t be alone, as he’ll have a 20-foot long fishing boat on one side of him and a training partner in a kayak on the other side. Both vessels will stay within about 25 feet of McConnell as he swims.

“They’re your eyes and ears.”

He also won’t be donning a wet suit – that’s prohibited in competitive marathon swimming.

“When you’re in a Speedo, cap and goggles, you don’t have much of a defense against boards with nails in them,” McConnell said.

Of course, McConnell already has overcome the feeling that there was a nail sticking into his neck. Four years after he had Medtronic’s Prestige Cervical Disc inserted, he forgets it’s even there.

In fact, it takes an airport screener to remind him that, “Oh, you have something in your neck.”

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