Backbone of Success

NB|AZ made a cross-country move easy for a surgical innovator

In 1995, Sonospine founder and surgeon-in-chief Dr. Dilan Ellegala was a medical student on a neurosurgery rotation at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he was surprised to see surgical instruments developed in the 1930s and ’40s still being used to perform spinal fusions. Dr. Ellegala’s journey to find a better technique led him to the university’s Applied Physics Laboratory, where a team was developing ultrasonic technologies for the U.S. Department of Defense.

“My ‘aha moment’ was asking myself why can’t we use this in brain and spine surgery?” he says.

Compared to a rongeur (a surgical cutting plier) or high-speed drill, ultrasonic energy could deliver the pinpoint precision Dr. Ellegala desired. In today’s version of the tool, a 1-millimeter instrument tip vibrates at ultrasonic frequency, allowing the surgeon to pare away bone, discs or ligaments that are compressing a nerve, millimeter by millimeter, without destabilizing the spine.

Dr. Ellegala first started using ultrasonic surgery—which the FDA approved in 2001—for cranial surgery in 2002 and spine surgery in 2007. “Initially, I only used it for lumbar problems, but the range has dramatically increased into the mid back and neck,” he says. “We can now treat most spine issues without requiring a spinal fusion.”

Whereas spinal fusion requires a hospital stay and six to nine months of recovery, Sonospine surgeons perform minimally invasive surgeries on an outpatient basis in about 90 minutes, and patients are back to full activity in six to eight weeks. The procedures are covered by some commercial insurers and medical-sharing programs, and the company is working towards wider acceptance.

“I believe we’ll see a trend of more insurers covering it, but it’s a process,” Dr. Ellegala says.

Sonospine’s clinical practice and company were founded on the East Coast, but a national search led them to Scottsdale for its western U.S. headquarters in 2018. A cross-country move also necessitated new banking relationships for Dr. Ellegala’s business and personal accounts.

“Within the first few weeks of being here, two different people referred me specifically to Kate Van Driel (Vice President, Private Banking Relationship Manager) at National Bank of Arizona,” he says. “In addition to having outstanding customer service, they had a similar philosophy of giving back to the local community, as well as giving back to the world as a whole.”

Dr. Ellegala says the connection between NB|AZ and Sonospine is similar to a doctor-patient relationship. “Our patients usually come to us because they need surgery. But it’s an area they may not know anything or much about, so they’re anxious,” he says. “It’s the same for us as we’re building our business. The financial world is an area we don’t know much about, so the level of personal attention NB|AZ delivers is incredibly reassuring.”

The bank’s treasury management services were an ideal fit, including remote deposit and merchant services. “We also set them up with a medical consortium card, which allows them to consolidate their spend and get a big cash-back reward at the end of the year,” says Van Driel.

Knowing Dr. Ellegala founded NGO Madaktari, a program that trains healthcare workers in remote Tanzania to perform brain and spine surgery, she also connected him with NB|AZ client K2 Adventures Foundation, which does mission work in that country.

“Our future is about making what we do the standard of care and providing access for patients across the U.S. So we see NB|AZ as a long-term partner,” Dr. Ellegala says. “They have been even more than I was hoping for in a local regional bank. I’ve been unbelievably impressed with not only the level of service, but the level of involvement that I see in the community.”