Dr. John Kessler was working in his office when he received word his daughter, Allison, had been seriously hurt in a skiing accident.
Kessler is a neurologist. And after talking to Allison’s doctor on the phone, he immediately realized she would be paralyzed from the waist down.
His fourth child — and only daughter — was a month shy of her 16th birthday.
Kessler almost passed out. He had to lie on the floor. “It was the worst moment of my life,” he recalled. “There isn’t even a second place.”
That night, Kessler made a promise to himself. He would spend the rest of his career researching a cure for the types of spinal cord injuries that have paralyzed Allison and so many others.
That was six years ago. Today, Kessler heads up an 18-person team at Northwestern University that is slowly edging toward a cure. Kessler’s lab already has restored some leg movements in mice with spinal cord injuries. Within two years, he plans to begin a clinical trial in humans.
This initial trial is expected to restore only partial movement and feeling. It wouldn’t be a cure, but it’s a start.
Kessler, 60, said he’s “absolutely convinced” that during his lifetime, doctors will be able to repair severed spinal cords.
“I think Allison will walk again,” he said.
The family has caught the attention of filmmakers. The documentary maker behind “Hoop Dreams” is currently working with the family.
Allison Kessler sees her father’s career change as a sign of his “unfaltering love. He would do anything for me.”
‘Allow science to use them’
The spinal cord contains millions of wirelike fibers called axons that carry messages between the brain and the body. Kessler compares a spinal cord injury to cutting an incredibly complicated telephone cable containing millions of wires.
Among the avenues his lab is exploring is stem cell therapy. A stem cell is a sort of all-purpose cell that, it’s hoped, could be programmed to stimulate the growth of axons and their protective coatings.
The stem cells that show the most promise, Kessler said, are derived from human embryos. Pro-life groups oppose the research because embryos are destroyed in the process, and President Bush has severely curtailed federal funding. (Kessler’s lab also uses noncontroversial adult stem cells.)
Kessler passionately defends embryonic stem cell research. The frozen embryos, no larger than the period at the end of this sentence, come from fertility clinics. They’re donated by parents who, for various reasons, have stopped trying to get pregnant.
“Either throw them in the trash, or allow science to use them to save lives,” Kessler said. “That’s the choice.”
‘I pretty much knew’
Kessler has been studying the nervous system for more than 30 years. Before he switched to spinal cord research, he was studying ways to treat Peripheral nerve damage from conditions such as diabetes.
That was before the January day in 2001 when Allison went skiing with her boyfriend. She was a superb athlete who excelled in soccer, lacrosse and ice skating as well as skiing.
Allison was going over ski jumps when she hit one that was eroded. She popped up into the air in an awkward position and landed on her back with her legs crossed.
When she tried to uncross her legs, they wouldn’t move. It was at that moment, she recalled, “that I pretty much knew what had happened.”
Allison went into surgery, and when she woke up, her first question was whether she would be able to have children.
“Yes, sweetheart, you will,” Kessler answered.
Allison remained upbeat. When friends visited, she would crack jokes to cheer them up. “She was quite remarkable, my daughter,” Kessler said.
There were dark days, of course. But everyone has bad days, she said, “and I’m not going to let the bad days wreck my life.”
Allison was a student at Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in Connecticut. She came home for Rehabilitation and fell months behind in her schoolwork.
But she caught up and graduated with her class. And she did well enough to get into Harvard University. She’s a 22-year-old senior now, majoring in biology. She plans to work for a year, then go to medical school.
She has been coxswain on Harvard’s crew team. She has traveled to Central America by herself. She has flown to London for New Year’s Eve.
‘On the same wavelength’
Allison has accepted being in a wheelchair “better than I have,” Kessler said. “My daughter keeps telling me to get over it.”
Kessler and Allison “are as close as a father and a daughter can be,” said her mother, Dr. Marilyn Kessler. “They’re on the same wavelength a lot.”
They like to play chess and backgammon together and watch their favorite movies over and over again. Allison said her father “is a wonderful scientist and a great dad.”
But she is less certain that she will walk again.
“I think of it as a nice dream,” she said. “But I’m not sitting around waiting for it to happen.”
BY JIM RITTER Health Reporter