Film stars groundbreaking WashU surgeon

Life-altering procedure spotlighted in ‘A Spark of Nerve’

TIM SCHALLER/Susan Mackinnon, MD, performs nerve-transfer surgery.
TIM SCHALLER/Susan Mackinnon, MD, performs nerve-transfer surgery.

Loren Schaller felt depressed when doctors diagnosed the then-15-year-old with upper-limb paralysis after nerves in her neck were severed during a random stabbing in San Francisco.

Michael Dietchweiler, a middle-aged attorney in Illinois involved in a freak chainsaw accident, received a similar devastating diagnosis – as did Chelsey Kolkmann, an 18-year-old survivor of an early-morning car wreck in St. Louis.

Months after their injuries, however, hope returned when they met Susan E. Mackinnon, MD, a groundbreaking plastic surgeon at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital who developed a surgical technique that has restored arm and hand movement in hundreds of patients such as Schaller, Dietchweiler and Kolkmann.

The documentary film, “A Spark of Nerve,” which debuts at 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, at the 24th annual St. Louis International Film Festival, details Mackinnon’s decades-long tenacity in pioneering the nerve-transfer procedure and the lives transformed by it.

“Success from the nerve-transfer surgery did not happen overnight,” said Mackinnon, director of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and of the School of Medicine’s Center for Nerve Injury and Paralysis. “It came after years of practicing the technique in the lab, honing what worked and changing what didn’t, much like a chef creating a recipe.”

Award-winning filmmakers Linda and Tim Schaller – Loren’s parents – funded the documentary to shine a light on life-changing nerve-transfer surgery and to let people with similar surgeries know they have options if they act quickly.

The procedure involves borrowing a patient’s healthy nerves and rerouting the nerves to the damaged area to restore movement and sensation. Recovery is incremental, with months of intensive physical therapy.

Mackinnon’s nerve-transfer has offered hope to injured military veterans and patients worldwide.

“The film focuses on the charismatic Dr. Mackinnon, but it is not just a medical story,” said Linda Schaller, who will travel with her husband and daughter from California to attend the premiere. “It is also a story about human triumph and spirit.”

Case in point: Loren Schaller has made a full recovery. She graduated from UCLA in 2014 and is working in costume design in Los Angeles. “People are astounded by her recovery,” Linda Schaller said. “We are so thankful we found Dr. Mackinnon.”

Said Mackinnon, the Sydney M. Shoenberg Jr. and Robert H. Shoenberg Professor: “It is important that these patients know there is hope.”

“A Spark of Nerve” starts at 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, at the Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard, in University City.

Tickets are free but must be picked up at the Tivoli Box Office.