Leading-edge spinal disc implant helps firefighter

Two years ago, Dustin F., now 39, a firefighter-paramedic for the Phoenix Fire Department, was flipping a heavy water hose off a firetruck during a training exercise. As he completed a twisting motion, he suddenly felt pain in his upper back.

“I felt a little stinger, and I thought it was just a pulled muscle,” says Dustin, who didn’t worry too much about it at first. “Our job inherently comes with some expectation of pain. We encourage our members to know the difference between being hurt and being injured. Unfortunately, I just thought I was hurt and could push through it, not understanding the severity of my situation.”

HonorHealth patient Dustin Farber

The 18-year veteran firefighter had previously worked in Apache Junction, and in wildland firefighting across the west, from California to Montana. “I didn’t realize how badly I was injured,” Dustin adds. “I just sucked it up.”

Symptoms continue to worsen

Throughout the next few days and weeks, his back muscles began to cramp and spasm. Dustin tried steroid injections. “It just kept getting worse,” he explains. “It went from stinging and feeling a little uncomfortable to a really deep burn.”

Soon after, the 5-foot-7-inch, 185-pound firefighter lost strength in his right arm. Dustin could barely lift a cup of coffee; couldn’t even grip his helmet or a broom. He remembers standing in a hallway of the fire station, crying from the pain.

Another firefighter, sensing his distress, suggested Dustin consider seeing a specialist affiliated with the Neuroscience Research Division at the HonorHealth Research Institute.

An MRI revealed Dustin had a severe spinal disc herniation, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult to get an appointment or schedule surgery.

Finding a new option for treatment

Luis M. Tumialán, MD, a former U.S. Navy officer, a spinal neurosurgeon and an independent member of the HonorHealth Medical Staff, took up Dustin’s case and — as part of a clinical trial — implanted an experimental “Synergy” disc in Dustin’s spine where the neck meets the shoulders. Dr. Tumialán is the principal investigator supervising the clinical trial, and he is also the Institute’s neurosurgery research director.

Dustin had seen other firefighters get their spines fused, resulting in limited mobility. The experimental disc he received provides him with flexibility left and right, forward and backward. And it was done on an outpatient basis, all in one day.

“I’m doing really good now,” shares Dustin, who still sees Dr. Tumialán for annual checkups. “The doctor made all the difference. He listens. He genuinely cares, otherwise he wouldn’t have fit me in between other patients. He’s clearly very good at what he does.”

Clinical trials available for neurologic and spine conditions

The HonorHealth Research Institute provides the broadest range of neurologic and spine clinical trials in metro Phoenix. The trials offer treatment options for a variety of conditions including disorders of the spine, multiple sclerosis, dementia and myositis.

Explore neuro and spine clinical trials