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Career-saving surgery keeps local hero in the cockpit

PARKER, Colo. -- His military career was nearly cut short by excruciating back pain.  But a local hero is crediting some amazing technology, and an amazing surgeon - with prolonging his time protecting our country.

Brigadier General Christopher Petty of Parker just retired after 31 years in the Army and Colorado Army National Guard.  And what a career.  The West Point grad worked at the Pentagon, consulted U.S.  presidents, advised NATO and helped lead the surge in Iraq.  He served all over the world.

But flying a Black Hawk helicopter was where he was most at home. Even as it took a toll on his health.

"You spend 2,600 hours in a cockpit, it's going to have some stress on your spine," Petty told FOX 31.

"I promised my wife after Iraq I would go and see a spine doctor and get help because it was becoming debilitating episodes every six weeks that would take me down," he added.

X-rays show the reason why.  A disc in his back had collapsed.

"Would've shortened his career in the military for sure," said Dr. Evalina Burger, orthopedic surgeon at UCHealth.

She operated on him as part of a disc replacement trial a decade ago, and inserted an artificial disc made of plastic and metal.  At the time is was rare, and insurance seldom covered it.

"Now it's approved for both the lumbar area and the cervical area. And we do this on the right patient, at the right time, it's a great surgery," Burger said.

For years, this strong leader had suffered in silence.  But no longer.  And he was able to carry out his last few years serving his country.

"It changed my life. It got rid of that anguishing, excruciating pain," Petty said.  "I wasn't limping across the finish line. I finished strong. You know, that's the way we like to do it in the army."

This once cutting-edge surgery actually ended up forming a real bond.  Just a few weeks ago, Dr. Burger attended the Brigadier General's retirement ceremony, where they played a video detailing his amazing career, and showing all the places he's served his country all over the world.  Only then did she realize... she'd been operating on a military heavyweight.

But the general says, she's the one worthy of a salute.

"Oh my gosh, i think she's definitely the hero of this story.  For me she is," Petty said.

Petty just had a follow up surgery five weeks ago to make some tweaks on his spine, and he says he's feeling great.

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