Helene Blieberg, B.A. '77
Billy Altman, B.A. '73
David Spiro, B.A. '85
the saving of a life
EMT David Spiro, '85, went from rescuer to rescued, while rerouting his life path amid a personal crisis
When David Spiro talks about UB, he talks about the Ellicott Complex. Even now, 20 years after he lived in the still-futuristic dorms, he fondly refers to them as "Lego Land" and can still recall how excited he was the weekend he visited the campus for the first time. He knew instantly, he says, that this was what college was supposed to be.
But if he gets any more specific, his reminiscences turn a touch macabre: The two students who got into a fistfight and rolled out of a seventh-story window in Fargo. The night a couch in Goodyear went up in flames and sent smoke through ventilation shafts, driving gagging students into the street. The construction worker, balancing on a scaffold high above the Alumni Arena pool, who suddenly lost his footing.
David Spiro, at St. Mary's Hospital in Brooklyn, worked for years in the "incredibly intense" field of para-medicine.
(Click to view larger image.)
Photo: Doug Levere
David Spiro, B.A. '85, doesn't remember his biology professor or the great parties his roommate had. What he remembers about UB is emergencies i for it was as a member of the Baird Point Ambulance Corps, the university's student-run ambulance service, that he found his true calling. The corps was just getting off the ground when Spiro enrolled at UB in 1981. After three years as a volunteer, he knew he was cut out for a career in emergency medical services. That construction worker who fell off the scaffolding? He was Spiro's first IV case in the field.
"I kept hearing, 'Oh, you're never going to make a lot of money, this isn't a true career,'" Spiro, 38, recalls. "But I realized that this is what I enjoy. I owe a lot of my life path to Baird Point."
For the next decade Spiro followed that path, working as an emergency medical technician at St. Mary's Hospital in Brooklyn. Day after day he went into Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, two of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City, and came back with cardiac patients and crack addicts, battered women and teenagers with gunshot wounds. He thrived on the work.
But that was nothing compared with the personal crisis waiting in the wings, the one that even a man whose job it was to prepare for every contingency could never have predicted. In a matter of months, Spiro went from rescuer to rescued. The liver disease he had lived with for years suddenly became life-threatening. In August of 1997, he underwent a liver transplant.
On a Sunday afternoon last fall in his living room in Hartsdale, N.Y., Spiro and his wife, Jacki, talked about his recent ordeal, his adventures as an EMT, and his plans to make the most of the new life he's been given. Though still pale and thin, Spiro has a kind of intensity and focus about him that makes it easy to imagine him deaaling with medical crises i including his own.
That focus has been with him since the day he saw a woman get hit by a bus. He was 17 at the time and living in the Bronx. "She was hurt pretty bad, and I couldn't do anything about it," he recalls. "I never wanted to feel so helpless again." Within months he'd joined the local volunteer ambulance corps, earning his New York State EMT certificate soon after.
Although it was the nursing program that attracted him to UB, it was the fledgling volunteer ambulance service that convinced him he'd made the right choice. He signed up immediately. On call for fights and fires as well as every concert and outdoor event, Spiro was soon taking advanced EMT courses and teaching CPR. It finally dawned on him that his experiences with Baird Point were a lot more fulfilling than his clinical work in nursing. "I was doing more paperwork than direct patient care, and that just turned me off." Against everyone's advice, he dropped out of nursing in his senior year, graduating instead with an interdisciplinary social sciences degree. Then he enrolled in paramedic school.
Once he had made the commitment, Spiro saw no reason not to jump right into the fire. The Brooklyn neighborhood where he worked for nine years as a field paramedic was "incredibly intense," he says. "I deliberately wanted to go there because I knew that this was the place to really cut your teeth as a paramedic." Spiro found himself walking into the aftermath of a lot of violent crime; he acknowledges the inherent thrill of such situations.
"In EMS, we have trauma junkies. That adrenaline rush used to get to me, too, and I'd feed off it, but that's only part of what drives you." The real thrill for him came on what he calls the "detective" calls.
"Trauma is easy i you plug the holes and run. But you earn your keep when you have to figure out what's going on and treat it properly." The stakes are higher with, say, a heart attack victim than with the kid who's just been stabbed, but treating such patients can be infinitely more rewarding. "Those are also the ones who used to scare the hell out of me. You have an asthmatic who's going out of the picture on you, and you work like a dog to bring him back from the edge."
During those intense years in the field, when Spiro was saving the lives of strangers, he could do nothing to stop the disease that would eventually threaten his own life. In fact, for much of that time, Spiro didn't know what was wrong with his liver, or how serious his illness was. The first hint of trouble came just after he graduated from UB.
"I went out to dinner with my parents for my 26th birthday. We were sitting in this restaurant and I went to scratch my neck. I could feel that all the lymph nodes in the back of my neck were swollen, and I thought, 'This is not right. This is not good.'"
During those intense years in the field, when Spiro was saving the lives of strangers, he could do nothing to stop the disease that would eventually threaten his own life.
After a series of tests, Spiro was told he had a form of hepatitis. It wasn't until two years later that a hepatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York made the correct diagnosis: primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease in which the bile ducts become narrowed due to inflammation and scarring, causing bile to build up in the liver. There is no specific treatment, and some patients go for years without showing any symptoms. "They told me I'd either have blood tests the rest of my life, or I might eventually need a transplant, and they didn't know which. So I went on with my life."
A few years later, Spiro's disease made its first grand appearance while he was at work. "If you think of somebody reaching a hand in to your liver and squeezing it i that's what it felt like. I didn't know what was happening to me."
The pain episodes lasted from 10 minutes to several hours and occurred about every eight months. Spiro just dealt with them as part of life. Then, not long after he was promoted to supervisor of ambulance services i a position that took him out of the field at what would prove to be a fortuitous time i Spiro realized that his skin color was changing and he was losing weight. At 6'2" and 165 pounds, he couldn't ignore a loss of 10 pounds. He started noticing arthritis in his hands, and skin lesions; he found himself falling asleep in the middle of meetings. By January 1997, the disease had reached such an advanced stage that Spiro was told he would need a transplant in as little as six months.
When he was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital in late July, he knew it could take months for a liver to become available. But a week later a teenager with the same blood type was shot to death. "I just shook when I heard that i I treated enough kids with gunshot wounds."
For the rest of his life Spiro will have to take immunosuppressant medication that will prevent his body from rejecting the "foreign" organ, but which sometimes makes his hands shake and sends his emotions on a roller-coaster ride. And he will never be able to return to paramedic fieldwork, with its constant risk of exposure to disease. But to Spiro, those are minor compromises. "I went from having just over a year to live to having years left. I consider myself incredibly, incredibly fortunate."
He and his wife plan to start a family within the next couple of years. And when he returns to work at St. Mary's, Spiro hopes to develop an EMS program that will train paramedics to promote organ donation. "There are 53,000 people waiting for organs i there are people dying. Paramedics, as community educators, can promote organ donation. We can get people to sign their donor cards and talk to their families."
And there's another thing Spiro is enthusiastically plotting from his living room as he recovers i an alien invasion of Earth. A huge science fiction fan, Spiro finally has the time to write the novel that's been brewing for years. He won't give too much away, but he says it will incorporate all of his life experiences. Count on artificial organ transplants and an alien ambulance squad i and maybe even the ultimate alien headquarters: the Ellicott Complex.
Clare O'Shea, M.A. '87 & B.A. '84, is copy chief for Barnes & Noble's Web site.