In August 2018, 13-year-old Payton of Crystal Falls, Mich. was playing on a rope hammock at a friend’s home after basketball practice, when he became twisted in it, fell and severely injured his spine.
"We were just messing around on the hammock, playing around, and I flung off," recalled Payton.
Unable to move and in excruciating pain, Payton feared he would be paralyzed. With multiple fractured vertebrae and internal bleeding, Payton was taken by ambulance from a hospital in the U.P. to HSHS St. Vincent Children’s Hospital in Green Bay.
“When something like this happens, it changes everything,” said Payton’s mom, Kara.
Once at HSHS St. Vincent Children’s Hospital, Payton was seen by Dr. Hoon Choi, a Prevea Health neurosurgeon that helped St. Vincent become the first hospital in Wisconsin to launch a state-of-the-art robotic spinal surgical system. Payton would be the first pediatric trauma patient in the world to receive surgery using this robotic surgical system, known as the ExcelciusGPS.
“Dr. Choi explained everything to us so clearly,” recalled Kara. “To see the preciseness of how he would put Payton’s spine back together using this system was so encouraging to us.”
Payton’s surgery with Dr. Choi and the ExcelciusGPS was a success. In all, seven screws and two rods were placed in his back, and he was even able to walk the next day after surgery. Still, the injury was a huge blow to Payton. As an active student-athlete, he had to be sidelined while he healed. However, that down time is when he found a new passion – robotics! In February 2019, Payton and his mom, Kara, led the charge to establish a robotics team at the middle school in Crystal Falls, Mich.
“This is something that never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Dr. Choi and the robotic surgery system,” said Kara. “Dr. Choi has inspired, motivated and encouraged Payton to do this.”
Robotics class - photo courtesy: Kara Woollard
On July 7, 2019, Payton had surgery with Dr. Choi again to remove the screws and rods that were placed in his spine. Payton now plans to install one or some of those screws into one of the future robots he will build for competition.
"It's extremely rewarding," said Dr. Choi. "We’ve not only fixed him physically, but mentally as well. I want to see him do great things one day when he grows up."
"I want to be a pilot or go into the Air Force, either fly planes or work on them, so the robotics is kind of helping me with the engineering part of that," said Payton.
This year, Payton, age 14, is a freshman in high school in Crystal Falls. He hopes to return to playing sports this year, in addition to participating in a robotics class now offered at his high school.