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Surgeon takes pains to preserve tattoos when he fixes spines

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Updated: February 14, 2014 6:03AM



Occasionally mixed among the family photos on Dr. Tyler Koski’s cellphone are pictures of back tattoos.

Koski, a surgeon, takes pains to preserve patients’ tattoos when he fixes their spines.

He’ll slice the inked skin, spend hours tinkering with a spine, and then study the picture the way someone working on a jigsaw puzzle looks at the box.

“It’s easy if the tattoo is letters or words, but when it’s a picture, it gets trickier,” said Koski, 40, co-director of the Northwestern Medicine Spine Center.

After concentrating for hours while standing on their feet, many surgeons will use staples — a quicker, easier option and less tattoo-friendly way to close a wound.

But Koski will spend an extra 45 minutes carefully stitching tattooed skin, even if a patient tells him not to “worry about making my tattoo look good.”

“It’s an art form like anything else. And people are proud of them and they are meant to be permanent,” said Koski, who doesn’t have any tattoos.

A castle and dragon tattoo once tested Koski. “It was essentially a very intricate mural,” he said.

But his hardest stitching job came after he straightened the scoliosis-plagued S-shaped spine of Rob Crane. The 10-hour surgery added three inches to Crane’s torso, who has an Irish crest tattooed across his back.

Crane, 48, wore a back brace during much of his childhood growing up in Rogers Park. He was able to avoid surgery in recent years by staying in shape by cycling and swimming. He was coached by Robbie Ventura, a former pro cyclist, and Marcia Cleveland, who swam the English Channel.

But 15 months ago, the pain became too severe, and he underwent surgery.

“I put screws and rods in and did a lot of cuts through his bone to loosen it up where it had stiffened in this mal-alignment, and then realigned it in a new and improved position,” Koski said. He then turned his attention to the tattoo.

“The skin changes a little bit, too, getting it to pull around and then getting the skin to line back up is a little bit of a trick, actually. I had to loosen up a little bit of some of the skin to pull it to fit nicely where we wanted it to,” he said.

The result: Despite a scar, Crane’s tattoo was stitched together nearly perfectly. A few months after the surgery, he had a skull tattooed inside the crest. It’s the symbol of the disbanded Rock Racing team, “the bad boys of cycling,” Crane said. The skull is flanked by the words “Rock Hard” and “Cycle Hard.”

The former is a reference to AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and other classic rock bands he’d listen to while on his bike.

“Loud music was the only way I could drown out the pain,” said Crane, a partner at Napleton’s Northwestern auto dealership.

“After the surgery, I felt better about my back. . . . I was straighter, I was more symmetrical. Finishing the tattoo was closure for me,” said Crane, who is mostly swimming these days as he regains his fitness level.

The surgery cost $300,000 — no extra cost for the tattoo care.

“I’m not charging by the hour,” said Koski, who faces back tattoos about 10 times a year — a number he expects to rise as young people with back tattoos grow old and develop spine problems.

Crane, who lives in Highland Park with his family, wants children to know that although scoliosis can be crippling, it is also manageable. “But you have to make sure you are exercising, so that if something does happen, your body is prepared for surgery.”

Email: mdudek@suntimes.com

Twitter: @mitchdudek



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