Surviving with spinal injuries

Ten years ago – while I was enjoying Sunday brunch at a rooftop cafe at a Beverly Hills hotel – I saw Christopher Reeve at a nearby table. Famously quadriplegic following a 1995 riding accident, the actor was tilted back in his padded wheelchair, tracheostomy tube in throat, portable ventilator at his side.

What an inspiring man, I thought at the time. From the depths of tragedy, Reeve gave voice, courage and hope to a unique constituency: people with spinal-cord injuries.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about this profound disability. Strange subject for an infectious-diseases doctor? Not really.

Until the mid-20th century, infections were the usual cause of death in patients with spinal paralysis due to sports accidents, car crashes, and gunshot wounds, to name just a few common triggers.

Thanks to advances – from acute stabilization and high-dose steroids (which, following injuries, decrease swelling and permanent damage of the spinal cord) to space-age surgery, antibiotics, rehab and devices – the chances of successfully living with a spinal-cord injury outweigh the risk of succumbing to one.

Sometimes I think every school kid should meet a patient with a spinal-cord injury. For one thing, each sufferer is living lesson in neuroanatomy – and a reminder to refrain from daredevil acts.

According to the Spinal Cord Injury Information Network based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, roughly 12,000 Americans suffer a spinal-cord injury every year. The network also estimates a total census of close to 300,000 patients.

For more severely-affected spinal-cord patients, skilled helpers and frequent repositioning are a must. Otherwise, because they lack sensation below the level of their injuries, chronic infections can easily fester with no painful clues.

Sadly, it seems that Reeve, a lifelong victim of asthma and allergies, died of sepsis triggered by an infected wound compounded by an adverse reaction to an antibiotic. During his nine years as a quadriplegic, however, he won respect and admiration the world over. No one has done more to push the boundaries of research and recovery for spinal-cord patients.

Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan, Correspondent
Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan is an infectious-diseases specialist and a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She can be reached at

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