Rick Sasso ’82: Surgical Pioneer

Jim Amidon — Like most people, I have bad days; days when the creative engine doesn’t fire, when I type responses to critical emails I never send, and struggle to put a happy face on the public image of the college. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.

When I get in one of those ruts, I try to remember why I’m here and why I’ve spent my life in service to the college — the students and alumni who make Wabash truly special.

After a crazy first three weeks of March, I had one of those professional life preservers thrown my way. Steve Charles, the amazingly talented editor of Wabash Magazine, was talking with a colleague about an alumnus who will be featured in the forthcoming June issue. They were frustrated because they had no good photos to illustrate the story of groundbreaking surgeon Rick Sasso ’82.

I shouted across the hall, “Steve, call his office and see if I can get into the operating room and photograph him in action.” I didn’t think Steve would call my bluff.

A week later I arrived at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, donned surgical scrubs, and trotted with camera into an orthopedic center operating room a little after 6 a.m. Dr. Sasso explained what he would be doing, using x-rays and MRI films to make it simpler for me to understand. It became clear from that moment that I would be his student and he would teach me every step of an extremely complicated spinal surgery.

To back up a bit, Dr. Sasso is being profiled because of his state-of-the-art spine surgery techniques and leadership of the Indiana Spine Group. He was the first surgeon in the U.S. to perform artificial disc replacement surgery in both the cervical and lumbar regions of the spine. He owns a dozen patents for surgical techniques and the tools to accomplish his work.

On the day I shadowed and photographed him, he performed a tricky surgery on a middle-aged woman suffering from spinal stenosis. Her spine was curved in such a way that it caused the spinal canal to narrow and put pressure on the spinal nerve. The debilitating condition left her limbs numb or completely useless.

Stenosis can be seen in young people, but mostly affects people over the age of 50. With age, the ligaments around the spine thicken, bones and joints enlarge, and the spinal cord is slowly pinched.

For two hours and 23 minutes, Dr. Sasso led an eight-member team that effectively corrected the problem in a procedure known as a laminectomy. Pieces of bone and tissue were removed and the patient’s once-flattened, compressed spinal cord suddenly looked like a happy, puffy balloon

Throughout the process, Dr. Sasso invited me to the operating table to both see what he was doing and document it in photos. As he did so, he talked about the tools and hardware he’s helped develop that allow for such good results — shorter and safer operations with long-term, success.

On this day, he used a device called the VERTEX Reconstruction System. If you didn’t know better, you’d think one of his surgical assistants had raided the hardware section at Stevenson’s Ace Hardware. Actually, the device is a carefully constructed and versatile system of screws, hooks, and rods that more thoroughly and safely eliminates the pressure on the spinal cord.

Lest people think I’ve gone from humanist to biologist, the real point here is the doctor himself. From the moment Dr. Sasso greeted me to the final handshake, it felt like I was hanging out with a long lost friend. He was gentle with my idiotic questions and explained things in great detail at an intellectual pace I could handle.

The really cool thing about Dr. Sasso is that he constantly questions everything. When faced with “that can’t be done,” he sets out to discover or invent solutions to long-standing problems. And in my case on that day, he was teacher, surgeon, and pioneer in a refreshingly ego-free manner.

Plaques and awards do not hang in his office; a few dozen pictures of his former patients living healthy lives provide all the satisfaction he needs. (Dr. Sasso is pictured above with Angela Allsup, who received an artificial cervical disc three years ago.)

Some might think observing spinal surgery is a long way from a professional perk, and they’re probably right. But meeting the man behind the mask and scalpel was for me the very best possible professional pick-me-up, and provided yet another example of the way Wabash men are changing the world in very human ways.


Read the full story about Dr. Rick Sasso’s life-saving, ground-breaking work in the next issue of Wabash Magazine.

  1. jessie napalan

    when do u think FDA will approved the artificial cervical disk here in california, my wife complaint a lot of pain on her neck ,we did MRI / X-RAY, c5,c7,she’s a kaiser patient

  2. Claudia Moser

    What an excellent article. It captures the essence of who Rick Sasso is, professionally and personally. Our family has had the privilege of knowing Rick since he was a boy down the street. My husband, a physician, worked with him when he was starting out as an orderly in the Emergency Room. Rick has performed two cervical repairs and removed a thoracic spinal cord mass from me. Not only is he an amazing human being, he is also an extraordinary surgeon!

  3. Great story. I worked with Dr. Robert Williams, the neurosurgeon who developed the microlumbar discectomy technique which is “standard of care” today. Many of your comments about Dr. Sasso were so familiar: figuring out how to do the “impossible,” a humble manner, a genuinely nice man.
    Glad to know that the good work is being continued by good people.

  4. I have been to see Dr. Sasso One time and I do need the surgery but because my husband is trying to get SSDI because of all of his ailments I have been continuing to work. Today is 06/20/07 and my back went out and I am using my husband’s cane to walk. I have degenerative disc disease and my 5th vertabrae is out pinching my nerves on the right side. I stand all day at work and it is very rough because I then come home and take care of my husband, 8 birds and 5 dogs(no, I will not get rid of my pets because they are my world) so after all of this and supper, mowing the lawn(3acres), changing oil in the trucks plus I also have a jewelry business (Totally Magnetized) that helps supplement our income because he is having a hard time getting SSDI it has to be done, plus it is magnetic jewelry I make that helps people with aches and pains so it is not a lost cause. I try to do as many festivals as I can but it is getting too hard for me to do unless I have help. I am only 44 years old will be 45 in August but having to take care of a disabled American Veteran and working 40 hours plus is taking a toll on me. I usually do not complain but I have to keep going for my husband, my animals and me and I will if I have to crawl to do it. They are my world, my life! My 5th vertabre is out 1/4 to 1/2 inch and is pinching my nerves in my lower back. I recently went to a chiropractor for help to avoid surgery but I thing it is now worse because it now has moved between my shoulder blades plus lower back and hips. Financially this is a very difficult time and I am still trying to keep going but can’t much longer, please get back with me and advise me as to what to do. Thank You! Sharon Bolen

  5. In 1995 I was referred to Dr. Sasso by a surgeon from Methodist Hospital’s Sports Med group. My anterior cervical dissection was a huge success. He is not only a great surgeon but he is also a very nice and caring guy.

  6. Wonderful artical! I have had 4 back surgeries with Dr. Sasso. He is an amazing surgeon and an even more amazing human being. I remember going in for my second surgery, and as I was sitting in pre-op I began crying uncontrollably. I was so scared to be going under the knife a second time because this time I knew exactly how much pain I would have to deal with after the surgery. No one could calm me down. The next thing I knew, Dr. Sasso came in and set on the bed with me. He reassured me that he would take excellent care of me and that I had nothing to worry about. He sat with me for a good 15 or 20 minutes, all the while holding my hand. I will never forget his compassion. Now, almost 7 years after my last surgery, I go through most of my days not even thinking about all of my back problems. I live life like any other person and I have Dr. Sasso to thank for that.

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