The moment the retired doctor’s head crashed into the net, snapped backwards and sent him flying through the air, he knew he had suffered a spinal cord injury.
It was the first time Dr. Bill Silvers, then 72, ever had played pickleball and just 10 minutes into his first game.
Spring was dawning on April 23, 2022, the last day of Passover — the Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom and survival. Silvers had spent the morning at his synagogue’s Saturday services and visited a friend who offered to teach him pickleball. They had just started playing on tennis courts at the friend’s condo south of Denver. Wires that hold up tennis nets are more taut than typical pickleball nets.
“I went for a shot at the net. I tripped. I had just had a left knee replacement. I hit the net with my head, hyperextended and fractured my C4,” said Silvers, a semi-retired allergist.
He felt no pain, but time seemed to stop as Silvers hovered for an eerily long moment in the air.
His life was about to change, and he knew it.
Putting tragedy into perspective: He’s the son of Holocaust survivors
As soon as Silvers’ body crumpled onto the court, he took command of the situation.
“Call 911. I have a spinal cord injury,” he told his friend.
When an ambulance crew arrived, Silvers updated the paramedics on his health status. They wanted to take him to a nearby suburban hospital. But Silvers knew he had suffered a very dangerous injury that likely would leave him paralyzed. He knew he would need a team of experienced pros. So, he insisted.
“Take me to the University,” he said, referring to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
The University of Colorado School of Medicine also had been Silvers’ academic home for decades. Along with serving countless Colorado patients through his allergy practice, Silvers was a beloved medical professor. And the Anschutz Medical Campus is the place where Silvers helped create and endowed a groundbreaking Holocaust bioethics program that educates all health sciences students about genocide and the prevention of medical abuses like those that were pervasive during the Nazi regime.
Silvers is the son of Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz and Dachau, then endured separate Holocaust death marches before miraculously reconnecting at a Red Cross shelter after the war.
Many German medical professionals were complicit in the Nazi extermination of more than 6 million Jewish people. That history has prompted Silvers to dedicate his life to educating young people about genocide and other atrocities.
Before the freak pickleball accident, Silvers was partially retired, had met his partner of five years, Sara Jo Fischer, and the two were enjoying an active life full of travel and sports.
“I was a huge skier, cyclist and tennis player. A month and a half before the accident, I was trying out my new knee on black diamond slopes in Vail,” Silvers said.
“With all of the risky things I’ve done in my life — from skiing to driving too fast — I may have deserved to have an accident. But pickleball was not my idea of a high-risk activity,” he said.
To cope with the challenging aftermath of his accident, Silvers has drawn inspiration from his parents and his deep Jewish faith.
“Having this kind of life-changing injury is not fun or easy at all. But it’s nothing like the experiences of the Holocaust. I look at my life through the lens of my parents’ experiences. That gives me perspective to address this situation as positively as I can,” Silvers said.
Of course, there are moments of frustration and deep loss, but Silvers is determined to serve as a “mensch,” a Yiddish word that means being a person of integrity, dignity and morality.
“God must have had a plan for me,’’ Silvers said.
As he fights to regain as much movement as possible and works to learn lessons from his accident, Silvers focuses relentlessly on cherishing the beauty of life, serving people and encouraging others to do the same.
“As long as you’re breathing, you have the chance to do good in your life. As long as you’re alive, you have the potential to grow, to help others and to be the best person you can be,” Silvers said in his deep, soothing voice.
“I have bad moments,” he said. “But I never have bad days.”
‘From the moment my head was in his hands, I knew I was safe’
Silvers’ insistence that paramedics take him to University of Colorado Hospital turned out to be prophetic.
Minutes after paramedics brought him to the ER, Silvers spotted a familiar face.
“The doctor who held my head was Jeff Druck. I had worked with him,” said Silvers, who felt relief wash over him as tears welled in his eyes.
“I knew from the moment my head was in his hands that I was safe,” Silvers said.
An emergency medicine physician, Druck also worked with Silvers on projects at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities where Silvers’ Holocaust Genocide Contemporary Bioethics Program is headquartered.
Druck had visited Silvers’ home, and the two had met over Zoom many times during the early days of the pandemic. Druck was just starting his shift that Saturday afternoon when he learned that a doctor had come to the ER after a pickleball accident. Druck rushed into the room and was heartbroken to see that his patient was also a friend and colleague.
“It was a devastating injury,” said Druck, who has been an ER doctor for more than 20 years.
While he has never seen a pickleball injury like the one Silvers suffered, Druck has cared for patients with similar spinal cord injuries.
“I’ve seen it in a patient who fell down the stairs and with other falls,” said Druck, who is now the vice chair for faculty advancement, diversity, equity, inclusion, and well-being for the University of Utah Department of Emergency Medicine.
As unlucky as Silvers was to have suffered such a severe pickleball injury, he was lucky about the precise spot where he snapped his neck.
Had he injured his spinal cord just a couple of centimeters higher, it’s likely that Silvers would have been unable to breathe, and the accident could have killed him.
Silvers also was lucky that he didn’t fully sever his spinal cord; instead, he suffered a severe bruise. That left open the possibility that he might regain some movement over time.
Early signs of hope: shrugging his shoulders, wiggling his toes
When Silvers arrived at the hospital, he couldn’t move anything below his chin, but he was breathing on his own and was able to express his wishes.
Druck was struck by Silvers’ remarkable attitude.
“He was talking about the important things and people in his life,” Druck said. “He has done so many amazing things and has helped so many people. He’s been such a force for good.”
While Silvers was in very dire shape, some small signs of hope emerged within the first 24 hours. The accident had rendered Silvers a quadriplegic (also known as a tetraplegic) — meaning that the paralysis was affecting all four of his limbs and his torso — but he did have some movement in his extremities.
“I began to be able to shrug my shoulders and wiggle my toes. I had a neurological connection to the lower part of my body. That’s all I could really do for the first month, but it was something,” Silvers said.
Druck and the ER team stabilized Silvers, then transferred him to critical care and neurosurgery experts.
Their mission was to relieve pressure on his spinal column as quickly as possible and to stave off infection.
First, however, Silvers had to cope with an immediate complication: a potentially fatal blood clot.
Waiting for a clot to clear and contemplating the meaning of life
Silvers’ team was eager to do surgery as quickly as possible, but doctors found a blood clot that had formed in Silvers’ vertebral artery. These clots are common in patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries. But they force delays in vital surgeries and can be very dangerous since clots can travel to the lungs, heart or brain.
To break up the clot, doctors gave Silvers blood thinners and anxiously monitored their patient.
Silvers, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to ponder his legacy.
In the months before the accident, by chance, Silvers had started writing what’s known as an “ethical will.” It’s not a will that parses out property. Rather, it’s a document that lays out a person’s beliefs and values. People who write ethical wills reflect on the meaning of their lives in order to pass wisdom down to family members and their communities.
Faced with paralysis, imminent surgery and a fresh reminder of his mortality, Silvers decided to immediately finish his ethical will. With the help of Nancy Sharp, who advises people about ethical wills, Silvers wrote:
“To those whose lives I may have touched: I have tried to be a mensch and live a meaningful life as a dedicated physician, a son of Holocaust survivors and a committed Jew,” Silvers wrote. “I have been given many blessings, some I didn’t appreciate at the time, but given a long life, I do now.
“I have suffered, struggled and persevered. I have loved, lost, and short of having no children, I have tried my best to lead a life of integrity and to leave a legacy, to help those I could and to make the world a better place,” he said.
Silvers went on to write about how his parents’ courage and their remarkable survival during World War II motivated him.
A daring escape from the Nazis
Silvers’ parents were both born in Radom, Poland. His mom’s parents were well-to-do owners of a brick factory.
“She grew up with a horse-drawn carriage that took her to private school,” Silvers wrote.
His father was the son of textile merchants who lived in an apartment above the store they owned.
Silvers’ father was due to start medical school in Warsaw on Sept. 1, 1939, the exact day when German troops invaded Poland, triggering the start of World War II.
Alas, Silvers’ dad never made it to medical school. But he survived, making Silvers’ life possible and planting the seed for his son to someday become a doctor.
During the war, Silvers’ parents endured unthinkable atrocities, but survived thanks to a daring escape from the Nazis.
“My parents knew one another before the war, but it was only during the three-day ‘aktion’ in the Radom ghetto, Aug. 14-16, 1942, that they bonded for life,” Silvers wrote in his ethical will.
After raiding the Radom ghetto, Nazis sent 30,000 of 33,000 Jewish residents to the Treblinka death camp.
Silvers’ parents would have been among them had Silvers’ dad not made a heroic move to save his future wife’s life.
“He threw her over the wall into the Aryan side (of Radom) outside the ghetto. He then followed her. When the Germans left, (my parents) returned to the ghetto and married on Aug. 16 in the family shul (synagogue), with only a few family members present.”
His dad was 22, and his mom 19.
“They felt if they were to be deported, at least they would go together,” Silvers wrote.
Surviving Auschwitz and Dachau, then a miraculous train station reunion
After dodging the Treblinka camp in 1942, both of Silvers’ parents were later sent to Auschwitz in August 1944. It was the deadliest of the extermination camps. Nazis killed more than 1.1 million people at Auschwitz. Silvers’ mom survived by working in a sewing shop; his dad toiled on a latrine crew. Nazis sent Silvers’ dad to other camps, and while on a forced death march from Dachau in early May 1945, Silvers’ father was liberated by American service members. His mother remained at Auschwitz until January 1945, when she, too, was forced to leave on a death march and was later liberated in Germany.
Separated at the end of the war, each heard that the other had survived. They crisscrossed Europe for weeks searching for one another and finally reunited at a Red Cross aid center at the Prague railway station in August 1945.
“Theirs was a real love story,” Silvers said. “My father survived the camps in hopes of being reunited with my mom.”
After the war, because Silvers’ father spoke multiple languages, he was able to get a job as a supply clerk with the United National Relief and Rehabilitation, which helped support war refugees. The work was good, but the trauma of all that the couple had endured hung over them.
When Silvers’ mom became pregnant, she and her husband connected with family in Indiana and arranged for a move to the U.S.
“It was critically important to my parents that I was not born on German soil,” Silvers wrote.
His parents wanted him to have the freedom and rights of being an American citizen and not to be in danger should Germans ever relaunch their systematic persecution and extermination of Jewish people.
Silvers was born in 1949 in Indiana and always carried his parents’ hopes with him. From the time he was a young boy, he decided to become a doctor so he could live out his father’s unfulfilled dream.
‘Between a rock and a hard place:’ Surgery was urgent, but had to be delayed
Decades later, Silvers had achieved far more than he or his parents ever could have imagined. He grew up in Indiana, went to medical school at Indiana University, did his medicine residency at Emory University and trained to become an allergist at National Jewish Health in Denver.
He loved teaching allergy and immunology to multiple generations of students at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“I felt it was an important part of giving back,” Silvers said.
He anchored his allergy practice in Greenwood Village south of Denver and also had a satellite practice in Vail.
Silvers adopted the color green as his signature personal and professional color. Long before consultants taught business leaders to use consistent colors in branding, Silvers figured it all out.
“Green is my color. It’s a great color. When I began my practice, it was in Greenwood Medical Center on Orchard Road in Greenwood Village,” Silvers said.
Blessed with athleticism and good looks, Silvers always wore green for work and loved sporting a bright green tie to the many charitable events he attended.
Life was grand.
He had achieved professional success, felt lucky to live in Colorado, embraced the outdoors as a skier and served as a pillar of the Jewish community.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bizarre accident had rendered this self-sufficient, accomplished man powerless and paralyzed. Far more used to assisting patients than being one, Silvers found himself stuck in a hospital bed.
An unflinching determination to survive
Silvers’ surgeons were eager to act, but had to be patient.
“We could not do surgery without causing him to bleed out,” said Dr. Jens-Peter Witt, Silvers’ chief neurosurgeon. “It was a very, very tough time for him and for us because we were afraid that he would lose more function.”
Witt said the spinal cord swells after being injured — just like any other organ — and surgery is vital to give the spinal cord space to heal after a traumatic accident.
Finally, after six days, Witt was able to do surgery, but another clot developed, and Silvers’ condition worsened again.
“After the first surgery, we had to go in again and clean out another clot,” Witt said.
“We were between a rock and a hard place for sure. It took a good two weeks before we knew that we were on a recovery course,” he said.
Witt said it was vital that Silvers received care at an academic medical center with a full team of experts who could help him. They included intensive care experts, neurologists, neurosurgeons and vascular experts.
“That allowed us to tap all of these skills and experiences immediately,” Witt said. “This was a very complicated situation. We resolved it by putting our heads together.”
Witt also credited his very motivated patient. With his medical knowledge and experience, Silvers knew all along how precarious his prognosis was. Nonetheless, he was unflinching in his determination to survive.
“With any procedure we did for him, we always had a discussion: ‘What are the possible consequences? What are the risks and benefits? Should we go this far? Should we go to the next step?’” Witt recalled.
“He kept telling us to do whatever had to be done. He felt like he had prepared his mind to go through the worst of complications,” Witt said.
As Silvers navigated each new obstacle, he connected warmly with each of his caregivers.
“That’s a ‘Dr. Bill’ specialty,” Witt said, referring to everyone’s nickname for Silvers.
“He exudes strength. He conveyed that to all of our students and residents and staff and colleagues,” Witt said.
Following the complications with blood clots, Silvers also endured two frightening episodes of sepsis — severe infections that can be deadly as they cause patients’ organs to shut down.
Mother’s Day on May 8 was especially bleak. To keep friends, former patients and colleagues updated on Silvers’ condition, his partner, Sara Jo Fischer, started posting updates on CaringBridge.
Among the many people and resources that Fischer was connecting with was the “Superman” foundation. Back in 1995, famed Superman actor Christopher Reeve broke his neck and became a quadriplegic following a devastating equestrian accident.
Reeve and his wife set up a foundation to support research and advocacy for people coping with spinal cord injuries. It’s now called the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
During a raw moment, as Silvers fought through sepsis, Fischer shared an update that would give rise to a new nickname.
“Our beloved SuperMenschMan needs your prayers,” Fischer wrote on May 13. “This has been another day of setbacks and instabilities due to an infection…Bill is fighting to keep on keeping on.”
From then on, Silvers became everyone’s “SuperMenschMan.” A friend designed a special T-shirt for team Silvers. It’s green — of course. And it shows a caped superhero cruising around in a wheel chair. Nancy Sharp, who had assisted with Silvers’ ethical will, created bracelets that read: “Be a Mensch.” They, too, are green, of course.
The first month after the accident was extremely difficult, but hope was on the horizon.
“I had a rocky course,” Silvers said. “Thankfully, I don’t remember a lot of it.”
Destiny: They were meant to be together
While much of the immediate aftermath of the accident was a blur for Silvers, Fischer, on the other hand, remembers those first days all too well. She had been out of town at a wedding when she received news of the crazy accident. She flew home and quickly tried to digest a myriad of frightening and overwhelming medical details.
Silvers and Fischer had been in a relatively new relationship at the time. A friend of Silvers’ met Fischer back in 2017 and declared that she and his friend, Silvers, would be “bashert.” It’s a Yiddish word that means they were destined to be soulmates.
There was a spark right away in a yin and yang sort of way.
A yoga lover who had spent time with Ram Dass, the guru of modern yoga, Fischer is an art curator who had lived for years in Santa Fe. She followed her heart all of her life, enjoying life’s zigs and zags. Many moons ago, she worked as a cook and crew member on yachts so she could travel. Silvers, on the other hand, had followed a carefully planned path all of his life.
Back in 2016, Silvers had sold his home and retired from his allergy practice. He was traveling extensively and was considering a move to Israel.
During an extended stay there in 2018, Silvers ruptured his Achilles tendon. He came home to Denver for surgery and recovered at Fischer’s rental home.
Their relationship deepened, and Fischer’s kindness as a caregiver foreshadowed the same selflessness and strength she would tap after the wrenching pickleball accident.
“We enjoyed one another’s company. We had great conversations. She cared for me,” he said.
Added Fischer: “I love to cook. Food is medicine to me. I use organic ingredients and cook from scratch.”
Their bond was sealed. They were, indeed, bashert.
When Silvers recovered from the Achilles injury, the couple traveled together to places like Machu Pichu, the Galápagos Islands and to snorkel at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
They loved far-flung adventures and immersing themselves in cultures around the world.
Then came their entirely unexpected detour. Following the accident, Fischer instantly became Silvers’ No. 1 supporter and advocate. Her sister is a nurse and helped her begin to figure out the complex medical world.
“My skill set and my soul have grown,” said Fischer, 68. “It’s given me the opportunity to grow as a human being.”
Recovering and seeing the future in a new light
Doctors at University of Colorado Hospital work closely with rehabilitation specialists at Craig Hospital in Englewood, teaming up on research to maximize healing for patients.
Craig is one of the world’s top hospitals for people with spinal cord injuries, and by late May, Silvers was able to transition to Craig for a two-month inpatient stay.
The work was extremely intense with full days of multiple kinds of therapies.
Silvers and Fischer were both eager learners as they embraced their new reality.
“I view this as a new life ahead, starting from total dependency on others… to hopeful self-sufficiency and independence in the future,” Silvers wrote on May 28 on his CaringBridge site.
Decades ago, medical professionals knew far less about spinal cord injuries and presumed that patients who had suffered bad injuries could never improve.
Thanks to new research, doctors now know that individuals can regain some function.
Silvers was immensely grateful that none of his doctors, therapists and caregivers either at University of Colorado or Craig focused on what he couldn’t do. Rather, they helped him learn new skills and view his future through a new prism.
“We have many more tools now. With physical therapy and occupational therapy, patients can make a lot of progress,” Silvers said.
When Silvers arrived at Craig, he could lift his arms a little bit.
“He was both eager to get to work and a little scared about what the future might look like,” said Dr. Jeff Berliner, a rehabilitation specialist who helped oversee Silvers’ care at Craig.
Berliner supports his patients through what he calls “kind honesty.” He spells out the truth about injuries while also encouraging patients to create and achieve new goals.
In general, young people who suffer severe spinal cord injuries can regain more function than older people. But Silvers’ fitness, medical knowledge and motivation all were on his side.
“In Bill’s case, he was already moving, and movement begets movement,” said Berliner, an assistant clinical professor at the CU School of Medicine and director of spinal cord research at Craig.
Berliner is also a Colorado founder and chair of Rehabilitation Services Volunteer Project (RSVP), a program which supports uninsured people with disabilities. Berliner teamed up with UCHealth doctor, William Niehaus, to create the Colorado RSVP organization. Niehaus is also an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the CU School of Medicine.
Silvers benefited greatly from the deep love and support he felt from community members and Fischer, who was by his side every day at Craig.
Over time, he learned how to use a wheelchair that he operates with a joystick. He can navigate well and can tilt his chair forward and backward to ease pressure on his muscles. He loves having deep conversations in person and also can connect with many, many friends and family thanks to voice commands on an iPhone that’s mounted on his chair.
Silvers also accomplished a huge achievement while at Craig. He built up the strength to stand up, and with the help of physical therapists, has now learned to take several steps.
As with his earlier UCHealth caregivers, Silvers’ dazzled his Craig team.
“He’s remarkably positive, insightful and kind. I happen to be Jewish. We had many long talks about the Holocaust,” Berliner said.
“His personality really started to shine. He never lost his clinician’s way. He wanted to take care of people: his neighbor and the team that was taking care of him.
“He has such an inquisitive nature. I loved sitting in his room and answering questions: some about his recovery, some about life in general, and some about what life looks like after spinal cord injuries. I encouraged him to go back to work,” said Berliner.
During his stay at Craig, Silvers made stellar progress.
“He’s had an excellent recovery, and there’s still hope for more progress,” Berliner said.
Spinal cord patients regain the most function within the first six months and can continue to build strength over time.
Even more important than physical recovery, however, is mental well-being. Berliner finds that the patients who do the best after shocking accidents like the one Silvers endured are those who focus on meaning in their lives.
Of course, because of his parents’ experience, Silvers always had a clear mission in his life.
Thanks to Fischer, Berliner and a large team of supporters and Craig, Silvers soon learned that while the accident changed how he would get around in the world, his dedication to making the world a better place was the same as it always had been.
“What he learned at Craig was how to live with his injuries, how to take care of himself and how to keep serving the entire community,” Berliner said. “He found his purpose and meaning again.”
Generations of young medical professionals need to know this history
The Holocaust program that Silvers helped create and funded at the Anschutz Medical Campus is unique around the world.
“There are not many bioethics centers that have a historical component to them, let alone the specific focus on the Holocaust,” said Dr. Matt Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities and a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and at the Colorado School of Public Health.
“Everyone in bioethics understands that this history is vital to understand, but very few teach it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s like teaching about racism. It’s right in front of us, but we don’t want to talk about it,” Wynia said.
All students at Anschutz — including those studying to become doctors, physician assistants, dentists, pharmacists and nurses — learn about eugenics programs that sprang up in Nazi Germany, and before that, in the U.S. and the U.K.
“Eugenics was an international movement that promoted the idea that healthy people should be bred, and unhealthy people should be sterilized,” Wynia said. “The Nazis took it a step further: ‘Let’s not just sterilize them. Let’s kill them.’”
Said Wynia: “Medical personnel were not just complicit. They were leaders of these programs. Before the Holocaust and the intentional genocide of Jewish people, medical professionals were gassing to death people with disabilities.”
When Wynia learned about Silvers’ accident, he and countless other “Dr. Bill” friends and fans were deeply concerned.
“It was touch and go for the first several weeks. This is true of all spinal cord injuries,” Wynia said.
Then, as months passed, Wynia started to see his friend and colleague recover and connect once again with students and bioethics fellows, among others.
“We had some fellows visit us for an intensive two-week seminar. Bill came to several sessions and was completely engaged,” Wynia said. “He’s always been worried about the next generation. How do we make sure young people know this history?”
Silvers shares his parents’ story and his own story, leaving young people inspired and in awe.
“He’s incredible. I would say he’s incredibly focused and dedicated to this mission. It’s not just for himself or for current doctors. His mission is that future generations of doctors will understand the importance of this history,” Wynia said.
Why did this happen?
The hardest times of the day are first thing in the morning.
Silvers wakes up and the reality of the accident hits him all over again.
“I’m lying in bed, and I can’t move.”
In times of sadness, he has drawn strength from his rabbi, Yaakov Meyer, from Aish of the Rockies.
“Why did this happen?” Silvers has asked.
“There could be several reasons,” Meyer told him. “One is that the Almighty has a plan for each of us. We don’t know what it is, but we try to measure up to whatever challenges we face. No. 2, when an accident like this happens, and your physical body no longer is able to perform, it gives your soul the opportunity to grow and blossom so you can become a greater person.”
And that is how Silvers views the world now.
“I can survive, and I can thrive.”
He chooses to think about beauty and hope.
To the west, from his bedroom window, he gazes out at Colorado’s tallest snow-capped mountains. Looking out this window later in the day, he will use all of his strength to lift himself from his wheelchair and to power through multiple squats so he can stay strong.
But in the early mornings, before he can get out of bed, he’ll think about how his dad used all of his strength to lift his mom up over that wall decades ago in Poland, or how, when he was five or six years old, he proudly waved an American flag as his parents got to celebrate officially becoming American citizens.
“My parents truly believed in America as an exceptional country, and so do I,” Silvers wrote in a Fourth of July update three months after his accident.
Before Fischer wakes up and Silvers’ caregivers arrive to help him get ready for the day, he also thinks about the therapeutic power of warm water.
Decades ago, before starting his own allergy practice, Silvers worked for a year from 1980 to 1981 as an emergency medicine physician at Aspen Valley Hospital. While Silvers lived in the mountains, his parents came to visit and fell in love with the Glenwood Springs pool and hot springs. The warm water and surrounding mountains reminded them of the Garmisch-Partenkirchen hot springs in Germany.
After the war, the young couple found the springs to be places of healing. They also brought new beginnings.
“My mom felt certain that it was there that she became pregnant with me,” Silvers said.
He always has been at home in the water. Before the accident, he was a graceful swimmer and sailor.
“Water heals the body and the soul,” Silvers said.
Now, as often as Silvers and Fischer can, they make the trip to Glenwood Springs. With help, Silvers moves from his wheelchair into the pool. Buoyed by the water, he can walk. Or, he can lean back and look up at the sky. As he floats, he stretches out his arms.
He is swimming. He is flying. He is “SuperMenschMan.”