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A New Lens on Life

March 27, 2024

Spine surgery enables nature enthusiast to pick up his camera again

Brock Gunter-Smith recovering on Unit GD2: “I’m grateful for Dr. Johnson and for all the people who took care of me at HSC. Every one of them made me feel special, happy, and genuinely cared for.”

Brock Gunter-Smith spent November 28—his birthday—near Starbuck, lurking behind trees and crawling on the chilly ground while lugging around 14 pounds of camera gear in the hopes of getting a photo of the rare white-winged dove.

“I heard about a sighting and I went out to see if I could find it. That bird should have been in Texas at that time of year,” says Gunter-Smith, a nature photography enthusiast. “Finding and photographing a rare bird I had never seen before was one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever been able to give myself.”

It turns out it was the last photo he would take for two months.

Gunter-Smith had been going out every day to take nature photos, mostly birds, as a way to cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he’s been living with since 2017. Birding and photography are his medicine and his bliss, and the thought that he might not be able to take pictures anymore was devastating.

Aside from PTSD, Gunter-Smith had been living with back pain, which he assumed was sciatica. He had good days and bad days, but rarely bad enough to skip a day of photography. Until November 29. The day after Gunter-Smith’s lens captured the dove, the pain in his lower back and down his left leg became severe after a seemingly innocuous tweak walking in his house.

Over the coming days, he made a couple of visits to urgent care centres looking for answers and relief.

Photo of a white-winged dove, taken by Brock Gunter-Smith on November 28, 2023, near Starbuck, Manitoba. “Finding and photographing a rare bird I had never seen before was one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever been able to give myself.”

What he didn’t realize at the time was that he needed complex spine surgery. One day in December, the pain simply became too much to bear and he was writhing on the floor in agony. This clearly wasn’t sciatica. He finally took a ride to HSC’s Emergency Department.

“At HSC, they had the expertise and resources to get to the heart of the problem,” says GunterSmith. “They did imaging and got my pain under control.

Within hours I saw a specialist and was admitted. In about a week, I had surgery. They next day I was on my feet and discharged. I still had pain, but it was good pain. Healing pain.”

Surgeon Michael Johnson removed bone fragments from the vertebrae to make more room for the nerves, explains Gunter-Smith of the four-and-a-half-hour procedure. While Gunter-Smith was impressed by the effectiveness of the surgery, he was equally impressed— and touched—by the overall care he received.

“I’m grateful for Dr. Johnson and for all the people who took care of me at HSC. Every one of them made me feel special, happy, and genuinely cared for,” he says. “I started off my visit [at HSC] feeling very low and broken and went home in incredibly high spirits with a clear path to full recovery.”

After a few weeks of rest and light exercise, this picture of health is once again taking pictures of birds—feeling grateful to be back in his bliss.

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