bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate Dr Paul Licina is a local hero, but a reluctant one at that.
Hero is a definition often overused and equally underestimated when describing a high achiever. It’s also a term that sits very uncomfortably when sprung upon acclaimed Brisbane spinal surgeon Paul Licina. But try telling that to the thousands of patients his silken hands have cured in the past 14 years and you will get a totally different response.
On the day we meet at SpinePlus—his state-of-the-art practice on Wickham Terrace Spring Hill—Licina, like he does most days, has just received a card from a female patient he operated on many years earlier. “She still writes to me after all these years to tell me how she is going and to say thanks for giving her a better quality of life,” he says. “But a hero I’m not. I just try to help people with serious back conditions. There is nothing more I dislike than sending people away because I can’t help them. Back pain is so debilitating and can have such an impact on a person’s quality of life.”
Renowned as a world leader in his chosen field, Licina has performed spinal surgery on about three thousand patients since he started in private practice in 1999 and hundreds of children who suffered scoliosis would be wheel-chair bound if not for his amazing skill and generosity. Born in Brisbane and educated at Brisbane State High School, the 49-year-old married father of two daughters is the son of a Serbian father and German mother.
His dad was a carpenter and although there was no heritage of medicine in his family’s lineage, Licina always wanted to be a doctor. “My mother told me that for as long as she could remember I wanted to be a doctor,” he said. “I don’t know what it was but from the time I was a little boy I wanted to work in medicine.”
After completing his university studies, Licina focussed on orthopaedic surgery and with encouragement from his mentor, highly regarded surgeon Bill Ryan, he completed a fellowship in spinal surgery at Queens Medical Centre in England in 1997. It was there Licina honed his exquisite skill under the tutelage of John Webb, the man he credits with making him the surgeon he is today.
On his return to Brisbane, Licina became involved in ground-breaking research on spinal cord injury. He was a member of the team that performed the world’s first transplant of specialised cells into the spinal cord of a paralysed patient in an attempt to develop a technique to promote spinal cord recovery. Licina still harbours no doubt that one day, surgeons and scientists will discover a cure for spinal cord injuries and that paralysis will eventually be a forgotten condition.
“That is what we are all trying to find; a procedure that will repair the spinal cord so people can walk again,” he said. “I am certain it will eventually happen – whether that is in my lifetime I’m not certain.” Australian champion motorbike rider Ben Grabham is one person who is adamant that Licina is worthy of hero status.
Grabham suffered horrific injuries when he collided with a kangaroo toward the end of a 750km off-road race at Condobolin in New South Wales during the Easter weekend last year. “I was leading the race with 100km to go and doing about 150km per hour when I saw a kangaroo out of the corner of my eye and next thing I woke up on the ground,” he said.“I felt like a truck was parked on my back. I must have taken the full force on my right hand side when I smashed into the kangaroo because it was all pins and needles and my back was burning, the pain was excruciating.”
Grabham was flown to Orange Hospital and then onto Sydney’s Westmead Hospital where the full extent of his injuries were revealed – a broken collarbone, broken arm, punctured lung, broken ribs, cracked shoulder blade and worst of all, six smashed vertebra. “My back wasn’t stable and the prognosis wasn’t good. They spoke of fusing my entire spine and for an active person like me that wasn’t an option.”
Ironically, the manager of Grabham’s racing team KTM had a connection with Licina and within days he was in Brisbane undergoing emergency surgery. “KTM flew me up, Paul saw me, had a look at the scans and said he was confident he would get me back on the bike,” Grabham said. “He operated on me for 10 hours and I was back up and walking within days.”
Licina recalls the injuries vividly. “Ben’s injuries were horrific. He snapped his back but after looking at the scans I was reasonably confident I could help him,” he said. Not only did Licina help Grabham walk again, he enabled him to achieve his lifelong dream of competing in the world famous Dakar Rally – the 9000km race through some of the world’s toughest terrain.
“It’s the biggest, toughest longest race in the world,” Grabham said. “My goal was simply to finish. I was scared going into it having broken my back but I got through and finished 15th. “I have no doubt in the world he fixed me. If it wasn’t for Paul, I wouldn’t have walked again let alone ridden a bike.
“Not only is a he is a master he is a really nice bloke.”