Medical Miracles: Putting Out the Fire
Chris Sichra was used to rescuing other people. Then, when he threw out his back, doctors rescued him from chronic pain with a “bag of bones.”
Photography by David Torrence
The distress call came in late at night during an ice storm on January 22, 2005. Hook & Ladder 2 piled into a fire engine and raced over to Beacon Avenue in north St. Louis. Chris Sichra was the first off the truck: He grabbed a big medical kit and slung a defibrillator over one shoulder, a spare air tank over the other. Just as he reached the front steps, he hit a slick of ice and fell backward. He landed flat on his back, all 6 feet 3 inches and 300 pounds of him, plus the weight of the equipment.
“I knew immediately something was wrong,” says Sichra, a master of stoic understatement. He had a ruptured disc and a slight spinal fracture, and steroid injections did nothing. Soon he couldn’t lift his left leg to go up stairs. A partial discectomy helped for a few years, but when he transferred to the rescue squad at Lambert–St. Louis International Airport, the pain came back like an old enemy’s revenge.
“I’ve had kidney stones,” he says, “and this was worse.” One night, he shot bolt upright from a dead sleep, screaming at the pain. An MRI showed scar tissue, inflammation, arthritis, and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the canal meant to protect the spinal nerves.
Sichra doesn’t take such news lying down. He started watching YouTube videos about anatomy and spinal problems, and he came upon one featuring Dr. Armond Levy with the SSM Neurosciences Institute at St. Clare Health Center in Fenton. Levy was talking about strokes, not spines, but Sichra liked the aggressive way he greeted a challenge. “Yeah,” he thought, “I’d like to see that guy.”
Levy looked over the scans and told Sichra what he didn’t want to hear: “You’re going to have to get fused.” Every firefighter he knew who’d had vertebrae fused had wound up going off the job. And Sichra was only 43; he couldn’t afford to retire.
“I think you’re going to be fine,” Levy assured him. “I think we can do this, and I’ll tell you why.” A new product called OptiMesh, which Levy called “a bag of bones,” would keep his spine stable and allow the vertebrae to fuse right through the holes in the mesh.
Sichra worked from 7 a.m. on June 6, 2012, to 7 the next morning, then went straight to St. Clare. Levy took bone from one of Sichra’s joints and ground it up, along with cadaver bone, as filling for the mesh bag, then stabilized the vertebrae with screws and titanium rods. “This thing has such a wide footprint, this bag of bones, that it was more stable right away,” Sichra says. He woke up in the recovery room feeling 100 times better already. He stood to use the bathroom, still wobbly from anesthetic, and waited with sick dread to feel something shift in his spine. It was rock-solid. He went home the next morning, and by July, he was doing yardwork.
In mid-July, Sichra put on his 70-pound gear and did yardwork wearing it. All week. In 100-plus-degree heat. His neighbors thought he’d had a lobotomy instead of a fusion. But by August 22, he was back on the firetruck—seven weeks earlier than projected.
Since then, he’s had no problems. Large people have heart attacks, and he carries them from the plane down the stairs to the ambulance. In October, he was offloading 300-pound nitrogen cylinders, and one slipped and fell on him. “My shoulder was sore, but my back held in there just fine,” he says. “I feel like I’m indestructible now.”