Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Vic surgery hope for quadriplegics

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A hasty beach dive on Australia Day last year left Jim Anderson a quadriplegic.

“I didn’t do a very good shallow dive. Went in too straight and just hit the bottom,” the 23-year-old Victorian explains.

“It wasn’t really painful. I just couldn’t feel anything.”

The spinal cord injury that paralysed his limbs left him with no hand function and limited elbow movement.

But during rehabilitation, he was offered groundbreaking surgery.

He jumped at the chance, becoming the first spinal cord injured patient in Australia to have a triple nerve transfer to restore hand and arm function.

Now he can open his hands, grip objects with one hand and lift and straighten out his arm.

“It’s awesome, really,” he says.

The surgery, by a team at Melbourne’s Austin Health, involves re-routing nerves that no longer work to functioning nerves to restore lost upper limb movement.

Surgeon Natasha van Zyl says nerve transfers have been used to treat nerve injury for a long time, but the technique is being used on quadriplegics for the first time to restore arm and hand function and help patients run a more normal life from a wheelchair.

“We’ll be doing three nerve transfers at once to try and get a more total reconstruction for the upper limb and we think that’s a first internationally,” she says.

Ms van Zyl says Mr Anderson’s results have created excitement in the medical community.

So far Austin Health surgeons have operated on eight quadriplegics with mixed results, with the procedure working best on patients within 12 months of injury.

“Hand function is what quadriplegic patients want, above all else, above the ability to walk, above the ability to have sexual function or bowel and bladder function,” Ms van Zyl says.

“So that’s our priority, to try and give them back some hand function so they can interact socially, they can work, they can have a more normal life.”


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