Mike Maloney is flying high again, thanks to Rockford Spine Center.
The 71-year-old Poplar Grove resident was an aerobatic pilot (and a school superintendent) in his past life, but one bad crash grounded him for several years.
In September 2002, Maloney was flying in upstate New York in a vintage Russian aerobatic aircraft when he experienced mechanical trouble and crashed. His plane landed on a rocky surface, which ripped the fuel tank open under the wings.
He survived, but not unscathed. The crash destroyed his T-12 vertebrae, and he was paralyzed from the waist down. Miraculously, the plane didn’t catch fire, but firefighters still had to hose him down and cut him from the wreckage.
Maloney was also lucky that a medical helicopter was housed and happened to be nearby at the airport where he had taken off.
“The head guy told me later that he made the call to the fire department before I hit the ground,” Maloney recalled.
Maloney spent 11 days recovering in intensive care at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. It was a touch-and-go time: He said the doctors and his family were “trying to decide whether not I was going to recover” or if they needed to “buy a casket.”
“They basically were picking my vertebrae out of my spinal cord,” he said. He also had a punctured lung and a fractured neck.
From New York, Maloney was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), where he spent three months doing rehab work. When he left the RIC, he still couldn’t walk; he was in a wheelchair, but he could stand unassisted for about 90 seconds. Progress came slowly – he reached the point where he could stand for about 5 minutes, then was able to move one foot in front of the other, and then he started walking with a walker, later progressing to crutches and canes.
“I fell a lot,” he said with a laugh. “My wife’s common response at the time when she’d hear a big noise in the house was, ‘Did you fall?’ and I’d say, ‘yes.’”
Maloney sought out Rockford Spine Center after his wife had a consultation about some back pain. Dr. Fred Sweet and Physician Assistant Sean Soare – or as Maloney calls them “the good Dr. Sweet and his ace assistant Sean” – were on the case to stabilize Maloney as best they could to reduce the amount of pain he was experiencing during the years after the crash. The levels just below his previous spinal fusion surgery were wearing out and pinching nerves, and making it more difficult for him to walk so Dr. Sweet conducted surgery to revise the previous surgery and extend it down a few levels to stabilize the spine and relieve pressure on the nerves so he could return to his functional activities.
Another surgery by Dr. Sweet in 2015 focused on the L2/3 and L3/4 fusion with removal of his old implants for transitional stenosis with bilateral lower extremity pain.
“The initial surgery is the big part – it did a lot of good in terms of keeping me stable,” Maloney said. “Dr. Sweet was able to keep me relieved from the pressure in my back, which meant I was able to get back to flying.”
Maloney has two planes today: a cross-country Beech B35 and a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub that are stored at the Poplar Grove Airport, near his home. He and his wife frequently take the B35 for the 2 ½-hour trip to Knoxville, Tennessee.
He still uses a cane and braces occasionally to help him walk. He’s “not ready to run a marathon” anytime soon, but he said focus and a positive attitude helps him with the day-to-day recovery.
“You just appreciate the fact that you can move. I look at other people all the time who don’t appreciate that they can essentially float around without any care in the world. Heck, I used to play racquetball three times a week, and I never thought about not being able to do that. Stairs are still a challenge today, and I used to just run up the stairs two at a time. But on the other hand, when I do something now, I look at it as an accomplishment. It’s an accomplishment to climb in the plane. It’s an accomplishment to even work on the car with my cane.”
Maloney and Dr. Sweet made a good pair – Sweet is also a pilot, and so is Sean.
“We talked a lot about airplanes, but I have to say, when they’re talking about your back, they are laserfocused,” Maloney recalled. “They’re focused on how they can make things better, and they’re so knowledgeable. It’s been an adventure – I’ve learned a lot from them.”