Adventurer’s next step is to take his first step

Published: May 18, 2007  |  Source: theage.com.au
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Out of hospital and extraordinarily positive, Michael D'Amelio has a joke with his girlfriend, Shennae Searle. Photo: Angela Wylie
Out of hospital and extraordinarily positive, Michael D'Amelio has a joke with his girlfriend, Shennae Searle. Photo: Angela Wylie

It WOULD never have happened if they had just stuck to the plan. But the £8 ($A19) air fares were too good to ignore. The ridiculously cheap flights took them to Switzerland, where the beauty of the Alps became the backdrop to disaster.

Until that point, their trip had been spectacular. It started with a mate’s wedding in Canada. Then on to New York, Las Vegas, Mexico, Cuba. They hiked the Inca trail, toured the Amazon, did the gorgeous Cinque Terre walk along the Italian coastline. Then Rome, and back to London.

It was November when they got to Interlaken. And that is when everything changed.

Michael D’Amelio, 25, and his girlfriend Shennae Searle, 27, each paid 500 Swiss francs and boarded a sky-diving helicopter with nervous excitement. When it was time to jump, he went first, in tandem with an instructor. Within a minute, she followed. The free fall was fantastic. Then it was time to land.

What happened next isn’t clear and is still being investigated by Swiss police. Mr D’Amelio’s landing was very rough. “Instead of gliding in and landing, it felt like we came down very sharp and very fast,” he remembers. “When we came down, I hit the ground and didn’t slide. I . . . jolted and I felt the force of the instructor come through my back.”

While in hospital in Bern, he learned he had broken the L1 vertebra, the first vertebra below the ribs in his spine. There was nerve damage to the bottom of his spinal cord. He had lost all sensation and function in his legs. He kept asking if he would walk again. The Swiss doctors didn’t want to answer. Finally, one abruptly gave him the answer he didn’t want. Ms Searle had to make the worst phone call she has ever made – to his parents in Bairnsdale.

Despite everything that has happened, Mr D’Amelio can still grin as he sits in his wheelchair and tells the next part of the story. His parents flew to Zurich the next day. They paid a cab driver 400 Swiss francs to drive them from Zurich to Bern, he laughs. They were so distraught that it didn’t occur to them to try to find the train station.

Several weeks later he flew back to Melbourne. An ambulance took him straight to the Austin Hospital, where the state’s spinal service is based. It was 3am by the time he got there. The first thing he saw when the ambulance doors opened was a group of friends. “To see your mates after everything you’ve gone through, to see them waiting for you at three in the morning was fantastic.”

The doctors at the Austin got him sitting up for the first time. He had been lying flat on his back for almost a month. After a little more than a week, he was out of hospital and recovering at the Austin’s Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre.

The state’s spinal cord service based at the Austin sees 80 trauma victims with spinal cord injuries each year, including from Tasmania and southern NSW. The director of the service, Associate Professor Doug Brown, says doctors there never tell patients they won’t ever walk again. “We are always hopeful. How can one say that it will never happen?” Professor Brown says the people who have these life-changing injuries display remarkable resilience. Their lives aren’t ruined – just different.

Ten to 15 per cent of these patients become severely depressed to the point where they need medical intervention. But if they get the right treatment, they don’t remain depressed. “They cope with their unhappiness and misery and, with the support of family and their own inner strength, are able to move forward and develop successful lives,” he says.

Mr D’Amelio has been out of hospital since March. He is extraordinarily positive. Now, his next step is to take his first step. He will never lose hope that he will play football and basketball, compete in triathlons and go hiking again. Recently, he typed the words “walk” and “paraplegic” into Google. Of the tens of thousands of websites that came up, he decided the option that showed the most promise was stem cell therapy in China.

He hopes to go in August, and is trying to raise $30,000 for the treatment. The place he is going to has been treating patients with stem cell injections since 2001. Its website says it has treated more than 800 people since June 2005, for conditions including Alzheimers and spinal cord injuries. Umbilical cord stem cells are administered through injections into the spinal cord fluid or through surgery.

The therapy is widely regarded as experimental by Australian doctors, who are uneasy about it. Professor Brown says claims of success in this area should be supported by proper clinical trials published in reputable medical journals, including complication and infection rates. “This is something quite new, so we don’t know whether it’s going to work,” he says.

Australian Stem Cell Centre chief executive Professor Stephen Livesey says: “Any time you intervene medically, there’s a risk, so you have to balance the benefit against the risk. The first thing you need to do is show absolutely that it’s a safe treatment.”

Mr D’Amelio says if the therapy helps him regain even a little sensation or function, it would be worth it. In the meantime, he has been trying a robotic walking machine, which is meant to help retrain the brain and improve walking.

He is also trying hyperbaric oxygenation, which delivers oxygen to the brain and spinal cord with the aim of promoting neurovascular repair.

“I’m still enjoying myself and playing sport and catching up with mates,” he says. “I’m going to try to get up and walk again but I’m still going to enjoy myself as I did before my injury.”

By Carol Nader