Your Health Today Magazine

Pilot off to new adventures after back surgery

David Couch

For 20 years, David Couch has flown all types of airplanes, both long and short treks, in all kinds of conditions.

In April, he lost engine power in the ultralight aircraft he was flying and was forced to land on a 30-foot-high levee in the countryside southeast of Columbia, Ill.“Unfortunately, the land where I had to land wasn’t the best,” noted David, 78, of Mehlville. “And I had to land fast because I was downwind.”

He emerged from the plane and crawled up the embankment with severe back pain – David later would learn he had suffered a broken back – and called a friend. The friend drove him to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with an unstable L1 burst fracture. Two days later he underwent a fusion procedure with laminectomy and bone marrow aspirate with neurosurgeon Bassam Hadi, M.D., of St. Anthony’s Neurosurgery Specialists.

Dr. Hadi explained, “A burst fracture literally means exactly that – that the vertebral body is fractured outward into the spinal canal, in a kind of radial distribution.

“In many instances, you have to decompress the nerves, take that pressure and bone off the nerves, and then you have to stabilize – the spine cannot stabilize itself,” he added. “So you place screws and rods to give it stability, and you remove pressure on the nerve by either pushing those bone pieces back away from the canal or moving them. It’s a very common procedure for us, and it is complicated. But we do this quite often and we do it very well.”

David was up and walking soon after the three-hour surgery. He spent four days in the hospital and another two weeks regaining his strength in St. Anthony’s Acute Rehabilitation Unit.

“I was very pleased with my stay at St. Anthony’s,” he said.

The surgery brings with it some loss of motion, Dr. Hadi pointed out, but David is doing well.

“We try to get our patients up walking immediately, as much as possible,” Dr. Hadi said. “Obviously, you’re hurting from the pain and the trauma. But we expect them to be mobile. We expect them to work with rehab. And we expect them to do well. They are limited in that they lose some range of motion because it’s a fusion. Obviously, they have scar tissue, some loss of muscle in the back, but overall, it is a stable, good surgery. It’s not a new spine.

“I expect him to have a normal, healthy life,” he said.

David said he’s pretty well healed from the surgery, although he does have a degenerative disc at the bottom of his vertebrae that’s unrelated to the surgery.

“I think I’m doing pretty good,” he said. “Dr. Hadi is an excellent doctor.”

David, who is retired from an administrative position at Laclede Gas, chuckles that he might look into another hobby these days, like racing cars. He’s no stranger to adventure, this 1956 graduate of Roosevelt High School and its Rough Riders. He’s also a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a weatherman on an aircraft carrier.

He and his wife, Pat, keep busy with 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren between them.

“I can do anything I want to do,” he said with a smile.