Spinal surgery gives woman hope
After the accident, she was told her injury was permanent.
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU
SHARON, Pa. - Beth Dulaney knew moments after her Ford Explorer rolled over on an icy road near Greenville on Oct. 29 that the accident had severed her spinal cord.
She's a trained emergency medical technician and administrative assistant to Dr. Sergio Segarra, director of emergency medicine at Sharon Regional Health System. She knew right away that her injury was serious.
"When the paramedic walked up to me, I told him I had severed my spinal cord," she said, recalling the accident.
She also knew what that meant.
"We're both medical people. We've always been taught and told that spinal cord injuries are permanent. They can't be fixed," said her husband, Don, a paramedic with McGonigle Ambulance Service Inc.
Dulaney, 37, of Dickens Pace, wasn't wearing her seat belt that day and said that may have actually saved her life.
If she had been wearing a shoulder belt holding her in place, she probably would have suffered extensive head injuries, she said, noting that the roof of her SUV was crushed.
She was partially ejected from the car as it rolled over, and her back was broken with the damaged vertebrae cutting her spinal cord.
It was her only injury, she said, noting that she didn't have a scratch anywhere else.
Her twin 5-year-old sons, Tyler and Taylor, were with her but were securely strapped into their car seats, and neither was injured.
She had spinal surgery after the crash, but the prognosis wasn't good. She was told the injury was permanent: She was paralyzed from the chest down and she could expect to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Don, who took a four-month leave from work to care for his wife, said a Crawford County friend who heard about Beth's accident sent him a letter telling him about Emmy Arnett Duffy of the Meadville area, a top rodeo performer and bull rider who had suffered a severe spinal injury when a bull fell on her during a rodeo in Oklahoma.
Duffy had undergone experimental spinal surgery in Quito, Ecuador, to repair her injury, and the friend thought the Dulaneys might want to look into the procedure.
Don called Duffy, and she invited the Dulaneys to visit her. She also told them about the surgery done by Dr. Carl C. Kao, a Washington, D.C.-based neurosurgeon, who had done a nerve graft repair of her spinal cord. She even had a video showing part of her surgery.
"We did a lot of research," Beth said, noting that her physicians were skeptical of what is considered to be experimental surgery that isn't performed in the United States because it isn't approved by the Food & Drug Administration.
Dr. Kao has been doing the procedure in other countries, and insurance companies won't cover the expense because it is considered to be experimental.
Dr. Kao, 68, a native of Taiwan who is now a U.S. citizen, is considered to be a pioneer in spinal injury treatment.
He told The Vindicator that he's been performing nerve graft repair of the spinal cord for the past 15 years and has done about 500 of the procedures.
He's had a good success rate, he said, explaining that he considers a case a success if the patient is eventually able to walk using specially designed support boots.
The Dulaneys contacted Dr. Kao, and he visited them in their home, examining Beth and her various X-rays and other scans before determining that the surgery would benefit her.
Beth had the eight-hour surgery Feb. 28 in Quito and stood, aided by the special boots and a walker, for the first time since her accident on March 13.
"It was totally, totally amazing," said Denise Quinn of Sharpsville, a nurse and a friend of the Dulaneys' who accompanied them to Ecuador. She also helped them raise some of the $36,000 needed to pay for the surgery and the cost of the trip.
The procedure basically involved taking nerves from both of Beth's legs and grafting them into the spinal cord break, Quinn said.
In just three days, Beth was able to again feel pain in her hips and abdomen, and within six days, she moved her toes, Quinn said.
Don said Dr. Kao told them that he was able to graft more nerve cells into Beth's spinal cord than he usually does, and that improved her prognosis.
The doctor said she will begin to develop increased sensations down to her knees, regain bowel and bladder control, regain sexual function and walk with the support boots and a walker, perhaps being able to walk with just a crutch or cane in as little as two years, Don said.
Her progress along those lines now rests primarily with her.
She faces four hours of physical therapy daily and must build up her endurance until she can stand for up to one hour a day. Then, she'll begin to learn to walk again. She's able to lock her knees when standing, and that will aid her progress.
She can't rise to her feet without help, but once upright, she can stand for a couple minutes at a time now.
"I try not to get my expectations too high. My hope is to be able to walk with the crutches. I'd be happy with any kind of walk," Beth said.
Duffy, who was injured in May 2001 and had the surgery in June 2002, said she has regained the use of her hip flexors and her quadriceps muscles on the front of her thighs, and her hamstrings are "coming back" as well. She can walk with braces that lock her knees, and with help getting into the saddle, is able to ride horses again.
Duffy had two words to describe Dr. Kao.
"He's wonderful," she said, noting that he will be coming to visit her this month.
"We all wish for miracles, but when one comes along, we doubt it," Don said.
"I think it is a miracle. I think [Dr. Kao's] hands are blessed," Beth said.
"WAKE ME UP WHEN IT'S OVER !!!"