UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center
UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center is a 72-bed community hospiotal in Rio Rancho, N.M.
Credit: John Arnold

UNM's Sandoval Regional Medical Center (SRMC) is celebrating the opening of a new spine center offering  patients a state-of-the-art, minimally invasive surgical technology developed by a University of New Mexico medical school alumnus.

The Dr. Anthony T. and Eileen K. Yeung Endoscopic Spine Center is opening thanks to a $2.5 million donation made last year by UNM School of Medicine alum Dr. Anthony Yeung and his wife, Eileen. Yeung, who live in Arizona and practices at the Desert Institute for Spine Care in Phoenix.

Since March, UNM surgeons have been operating at SRMC, using the FDA-approved endoscopically guided laser spine technique developed by Yeung in the 1990s.  His endoscopically guided laser spine technique uses surgery tools that are 1/6th the size of surgical tubes used in regular minimally invasive back surgery and up to 1/20th the size of what might be used in a conventional back operation.

The technique is effective for a variety of patients including those suffering from sciatica, or the severe leg and buttock pain that is caused by a bulging, or herniated disc in the lower back.

“Instead of having to open up the entire back, an endoscope allows the surgeon to approach the spine with one or more a tiny incisions," said Dr. Howard Yonas, chairman of UNM's Department of Neurosurgery. "They can literally be covered with a Band-Aid." 

UNM has equipped a SRMC surgical suite with the unique instruments needed for the surgery and provided special training to operating room nurses assisting with the procedures.

Yeung became interested in back surgery early in his career.  "My mother had back surgery that made things worse," he said.  "I thought that there had to be a better way."

At the time, surgeons had to remove bone and muscle in order to access compressed disks, he said.  By marrying laser techniques with minimally invasive tools, he found that he could operate without having to removing bone, thus limiting the potential risks of adverse side effects."

At SRMC surgeons will both treat patients and educate other surgeons on the technique.

"I wanted to bring this to UNM because there is already a team in place here that is interested in working with patients to find the source of their pain," Yeung said.

In creating the center at UNM, Yeung joins an interdisciplinary team dedicated to providing a multipronged approach to spinal pain care.  The SRMC facility is part of the UNM Interdisciplinary Center for Spine Health, according to Dr. J. Fred Harrington, assistant professor of neurosurgery and the director of the new endoscopic surgical center.

 “Every patient who comes to us is evaluated by a multi-disciplinary team,” Harrington said.

The Interdisciplinary Center for Spine Health at UNM also holds a close affiliation with the UNM Pain Center which includes an interdisciplinary team of specialists in neurology, psychiatry, physical medicine and rehabilitation, anesthesia/interventional pain, neurosurgery, internal medicine, family practice, psychology, pharmacy and physical and occupational therapy and chiropractic services.

 “Dr. Yeung’s tools and techniques mean that many prospective back pain patients will now have a new option which involves a much less invasive approach than even what has been called minimally invasive surgery," Yonas said.