Inspired by the science that saved him, teen finds passion for robotics

Payton Wollard and mom Kara Wollard (photo provided)
Payton Wollard and mom Kara Wollard (photo provided)(WBAY)
Published: Sep. 3, 2019 at 2:40 PM CDT
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A teen from Michigan's UP is walking and active again, becoming what doctors believe is the first child in the world to undergo trauma spine surgery with a state-of-the-art robot.

That teen is now using his experience and his new love of robotics to inspire others.

Seeing 14-year-old Payton Wollard running through the park or sitting up, chatting with his doctor, it's hard to believe he broke his back in multiple places just one year ago.

"We were just messing around on the hammock, playing around, and I flung off and just... broke my back, I guess," says Payton.

His foot still caught in the rope hammock, Payton landed hard on his upper back.

What he thought was a torn muscle turned out to be several broken vertebrae and an internal bleed on his spinal cord.

He was rushed to HSHS St. Vincent Children's Hospital in Green Bay.

"I think he thought he was going to be paralyzed," says Kara Wollard, Payton's mom. "Kids think when you have a broken back that that's it."

Prevea neurosurgeon Dr. Hoon Choi thought otherwise.

"Dr. Choi, being the engineer that he is, said I think I can fix this," recalls Kara.

Using the hospital's six-month old robotic spinal surgical system, called the ExcelciusGPS, Dr. Choi placed seven screws in Payton's back.

"We lined him up, so everything is lined up nicely. We put in screws and rods to hold them there, and then I used a drill and the microscope to shave the part that was broken," explains Dr. Choi. "I took out the bleeding hematoma off the spinal cord, so he did very well."

The day after surgery, Kara couldn't believe her son was already walking.

"I hadn't seen Payton walk in six days," says Kara. "So to see him get up and to see a smile on his face, to know that he was upright, that was pretty emotional... being that technology and a robot just fixed my kid!"

Dr. Choi says this kind of injury is rare in children, and recently learned from the company that built the robot, just how rare the whole thing is.

"They actually informed me that this was the first case in the world using this robotic system in a pediatric trauma case," says Dr. Choi.

Payton was restricted from playing sports while he healed. In the meantime, he discovered a new passion.

"Robotics. Since the surgery was done with a robot, I was kind of interested," says Payton.

Payton and his mom started an extracurricular robotics team. It quickly drew interest from other kids, and they began entering competitions.

"We were a rookie team, and they did well," says Kara.

So well, Kara says the Forest Park School District in Crystal Falls, Michigan is now offering robotics classes as part of its curriculum this fall.

"There would have been no reason. There would have been no motivation, no inspiration, and Dr. Choi gave that to Payton, so that's pretty exciting," says Kara.

At least one of those screws Dr. Choi removed from Payton's back in July will now be used to help build his next robot.

"It's extremely rewarding," says Dr. Choi. "It's not just medical that we fixed him and he's doing well, it's mentally, and how he's so inspired by this. 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," says Payton.