Belen Fire Chief Manny Garcia on the mend after surgery

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Belen Fire Chief Manny Garcia is back home recovering from spinal surgery after neurosurgeons removed an unknown mass spanning over three vertebrates of the fire chief’s lower spine on April 15.

Manny Garcia: Belen Fire Chief

The mass, which started off the size of Garcia’s thumb, was compressing nerves in his spine, causing severe pain radiating from his lower back to his left leg.

“I’ve fought bigger fires than this, so I will recover from this very soon and I’m looking forward to that,” said Garcia, who has been chief for seven years and with the department for 19 years.

When Garcia woke up the morning of February 23, he thought the tight feeling in his back was another bout of chronic back pain. Usually the bouts of pain linger around for a few days and go away on their own, but this time it didn’t.

Two days later, Garcia went about his day at the fire station feeling fine when that afternoon his leg began to cramp to the point where he had to go home. The constant pain he felt in his lower back traveled to his left leg, inhibiting him from going about his normal routine.

“I couldn’t do anything,” the fire chief said. “I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t sit up. I couldn’t lay down. I couldn’t bend over. I couldn’t squat.”

The 32-year-old relied on his sister, Danielle, to help him get around, but the next day the pain got worse.

The pain in his left leg made him feel as if his leg was on the verge of exploding, he said.

“It felt like it was on fire,” he said.

Later that day, his sister took him to the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque. Doctors, who had found nothing wrong with Garcia, sent him home with pain medication, but not even the strong medications could relieve his excruciating pain.

On his third visit to the emergency room that week, an MRI revealed Garcia had a dark spot on his spinal cord between his lumbar vertebrates L3, L4 and L5. The mass was pressing up against the nerves on the left side of his spinal cord creating the pain he was suffering from.

“They weren’t certain when the spot started and over what period of time it was growing,” Garcia said.

Two weeks before his surgery, doctors tried reducing the size of his mass with a lumbar epidural injection and steroid medication. A follow up MRI revealed the mass was smaller, but still needed to be extracted.

Doctors speculated they would need to cut through Garcia’s vertebrate to extract the mass, but during surgery they realized that wasn’t necessary.

This changed the foraminotomy, or a decompression surgery that enlarges the passageway in the spinal canal where a spinal nerve root exits to release pressure on the nerve, from a three-hour procedure to one hour.

“It wasn’t as complicated as they thought,” Garcia said.

Examinations continue to be conducted to determine what the mass was.

Since the Belen native is healthy, doctors estimate his recovery will take four to six weeks and he will be able to return to fighting fires in early June.

“I’m happy that it’s over and I’m focusing on my recovery now,” he said, “and getting back to work.”

While Garcia is recovering from his surgery, Assistant Fire Chief Nathan Godfrey has stepped in as interim fire chief.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.