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Paralysis victim ‘returned to life’

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As he’d done so many times before, Jonah Shea tackled the chilly waters of Cape Cod Bay by running and diving in head first.

The 26-year-old Dennis resident was scheduled to tend bar on a recent July night at his father’s pub. But first, he and a friend went for a swim near Crowe’s Pasture, a popular off-road beach.

This time, something went wrong.

As soon as Shea hit the water, he felt a thunk on his head. He had dived right into a sandbar and broke his neck.

“It didn’t hurt,” Shea said. “I was just looking around under the water and couldn’t move anything.”

In that instant, Shea joined a fraternity of individuals living with spinal cord injuries consisting of at least 300,000 people in the United States alone, according to the Spinal Cord Society in Minnesota.

And it is a fraternity, said Dr. Kristin Gustafson, Shea’s physician at the Boston Medical Center in Boston. Shea was airlifted there after his July 14 injury. The majority of the 11,000 new spinal cord injuries that occur each year involve young males hurt in automobile, football and diving accidents, as well as gun violence, she said.

And for most of human history, such trauma to the Central Nervous System resulted in severely constricted lives and untimely deaths, Gustafson said. But in the past 25 years, advances in the care of spinal cord patients and technological applications, such as power wheelchairs and modified cars, have improved the life expectancy and quality of life of these mainly young victims, she said. “In the 1970s, people were still dying from urinary tract infections and wounds.”

“Up to World War II, if you got a spinal cord injury, you died,” said Susan Howley, executive vice president and director of research for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in New Jersey.

Thanks to antibiotics, more sophisticated treatment of pressure sores and other interventions, people with spinal cord injuries can have a near normal life span, she said.

Aggressive Rehabilitation and computerized equipment are literally putting spinal cord victims back in the driver’s seat, Gustafson said.

It may be years before Shea is able to take care of himself and use a manual wheelchair, but he already is benefiting from medical and technological advances made over the past quarter century.

Unable to use any muscles below his armpits except for his biceps, Shea had a bone graft surgery to stabilize his neck and spine. He is sitting up and tooling around in a power wheelchair that he controls with the side of his arm.

“The second time in the wheelchair, he was backing up into small spaces,” said his mother, Bonnie Shea of Dennis.

The search for an actual cure or reversal of spinal cord injury is still in its infancy.

“Any injury to the spinal cord is enormously complicated,” Howley said.

The spinal cord contains different types of cells with different types of functions.

“There isn’t going to be a magic bullet,” Howley said. “It’s not that easy.”

A couple of neuro-protective therapies for acute injury are in the clinical trial phase, she said.

Gustafson said she is confident there will be a cure within her lifetime. “Make that before I retire,” added the physician, age 40.

Weaned off an oxygen mask and breathing tube, Shea is able to speak as clearly as ever and is firm about his intention to benefit from his daily four-hour occupational and Physical Therapy sessions, which will continue when he returns home at the end of the month.

“I want to get in shape again,” Shea said. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

His positive attitude is no surprise to friends who have known Shea since he was a student at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, from which he graduated in 1999.

“Jonah’s the type of person who would do it for someone else,” said Jeff Baroni, one of Shea’s friends. “He’s a people person. Everyone wants to be his friend.”

It was the love of family and friends that kept Shea going during the dark days after he broke his neck and nearly drowned, the young man said.

“I had this one day when I had all my friends come to say goodbye,” said Shea, who was having respiratory difficulties and had asked for a no resuscitation order if he lost consciousness.

Looking at the cards and posters his friends had signed, Shea had a change of heart.

“I can honestly say that was the best day of my life. I felt I had died and returned to life. It was a good feeling. Now my goal is to keep getting better, improve.”

Cynthia McCormick can be reached at
Spinal cord improvements

Throughout most of human history, physicians and doctors believed spinal damage was untreatable and that nerves in the central nervous system could not regrow once injured, according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Researchers in the 1980s breathed life in the field when they discovered that it was the presence of a certain type of protein that didn’t allow spinal cord neurons to regenerate, the foundation’s literature says.

Current research is looking for a way around the body’s roadblocks to repair the damage. Scientists are hoping to get uninjured neurons to grow and compensate for lost neurons. They also are focusing on scar prevention and using stem cells and synthetic polymer “scaffolds” to assist in neural repair.

Also promising is a type of locomotor training, in which patients are suspended above a treadmill while therapists move their legs, said Susan Howley of the foundation.

It turns out the spinal cord contains the patterning for activity such as walking, Howley said. “It’s like a little brain. Some do gain the ability to step and walk over ground.”

The locomotor training program is a fact of the foundation’s Neuro Recovery Network and has more than 100 patients enrolled, she said. The goal is to expand the therapy into local communities across the country, Howley said.

– Cindy McCormick


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