Patient: Eugene Stolowski, 33, firefighter
Doctor: Roger Hartl, neurosurgeon, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center
Patient’s wife: Brigid Stolowski
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Eugene: We got called to an apartment-building fire in the Bronx on January 23, 2005—the famous Black Sunday fire. We were on the fourth floor looking for victims, and the room just erupted in flames. I remember thinking, We have to get out of here, but the only way out was through the windows. We jumped 50 feet. I busted bones in my legs and tore up my knee and pelvis.
Brigid: They found him lying facedown in the snow. He was blue. He wasn’t breathing.
Eugene: The guys revived me, and I wanted to know how everybody was. I knew at least three of us jumped. I didn’t know that three others had jumped, and two guys—John Bellew and Curtis Meyran—had died.
Brigid: When I got the call that they’re going to send department chiefs out to my house, I dropped the phone. But when I got to the hospital, Gene was giving thumbs-up.
Eugene: I was in St. Barnabas in the Bronx for 24 hours. My lungs were damaged, so they trached me, and I couldn’t talk. I kept writing to Brigid, “Neck. Neck, neck, neck.” And each time I wrote it, the writing got worse. I guess I was losing function.
Hartl: St. Barnabas had called me in for a consult. Gene’s X-rays showed a lot of soft-tissue swelling in his neck. He had sensation, but wasn’t moving his arms or legs. It was obvious he had a severe spinal-cord injury. Weill Cornell is better equipped for that, so I initiated an emergency transfer.
Brigid: Dr. Hartl says he knew what was wrong when they moved him from the stretcher and Gene’s head whipped around 90 degrees.
Hartl: He had an atlanto-occipital dislocation.The bones were intact, but the ligaments between the skull and the spine were torn. The only thing connecting the head to the spine was the spinal cord. Just moving his head would risk paralysis, or death.
Brigid: Dr. Hartl came out and tears were welling up in his eyes, and he said, “I don’t know if I can save him.” He gave me a 5 percent chance that Gene would live through the surgery. I just had that sick-gut feeling.
Hartl: The biggest risk was further spinal-cord injury. And in placing the titanium screws in the skull and neck, you risk puncturing blood vessels. It took seven hours, but it went well. Still, he probably had only a 30 percent chance of regaining function.
Brigid: He had nine surgeries the first two weeks. He was spiking 106-degree fevers from infections. They put garbage bags filled with ice on his chest.
Eugene: I couldn’t talk, so we got an ABC chart made and I would blink letters, but I’m a terrible speller. My face was itching and I was trying to tell them to wash it, and it took days for me to get that across.
Hartl: For two weeks, there was no progress. Then he moved his fingers. And pretty soon his hands. And his arms. After four weeks, they moved him to a rehab center.
Eugene: I was there when our twins, Kaitlin and Kailey, were born on April 12. They put me in a wheelchair and I got to hold them. I stood up for the first time in August, and on September 14, I walked out.
Brigid: One of his goals was to walk in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in memory of Curt and John. He was laid up for a week afterward, but he did it.
Eugene: I can’t run or fight fires, but Dr. Hartl says I have the chance to be 95 percent of what I was. I’m working around the house, taking care of the kids. I’m probably going to teach at the firehouse. And I finally get to work on my golf swing.
Brigid: I told the guys, “Now we just have to find Gene more things to do.” He’s driving me crazy. Next: Taxi Driver Survives Testicular Cancer