Robot therapy helps man battle back from spinal cord injury


Knight Ridder Newspapers

DALLAS - (KRT) - The pop of the surgical staple gun against the top of his head jolted David Cunniff into consciousness.

The pain lasted only a second. The lights overhead were blinding.

Suddenly, he was sitting in a wooden cart in the middle of a marketplace in Istanbul. Then came the swoosh of saloon doors swinging open, like in a Clint Eastwood Western.

The bones in his neck were crushed in three places when he was beaten and slammed to the concrete floor of a Deep Ellum nightclub. The assault, which took only minutes, left Cunniff paralyzed from the chest down.

The damage to his spinal cord seemed so severe that doctors told his family he had less than a 1 percent chance of walking again.

Two days later, he regained consciousness. Two 10-inch titanium rods, 10 screws and a high-tech superglue held the bones in his neck together.

A metal halo screwed into his skull above his ears helped keep his spine straight.

His head was shaved straight down the middle in a reverse Mohawk. A track of stitches stretched from his forehead to the middle of his back.

His ankles were strapped to bedposts. Above him, pulleys and 30 pounds of weight held his 6-foot-4-inch body perfectly still.

A guy named Elvis was in the bed next to him. Or maybe it was Presley.

Outside his room at Baylor University Medical Center, Cunniff's 19-year-old daughter, Caitlin, cornered the surgeon.

"Never say never; nothing is impossible," he told her. "But I don't think it's very likely he'll ever get out of bed."

The spinal cord is a thumb-size bundle of nerves that connects the brain to the body. It is surrounded by a gel-like substance and passes through 24 rings of bone, stretching from the base of the skull to the tailbone.

Dr. Richard Bruce, medical director for the Spinal Cord Injury Service at Baylor Institute of Rehabilitation, likens the spinal cord to a highway.

"If a bridge gets knocked out, then the traffic flow stops; but the traffic is still there," he said. "If we can figure out a way to rebuild the bridge or build a detour, then we'd have something."

To the dozens of friends and relatives who camped outside his room during his two-week hospitalization, Cunniff appeared upbeat.

Cunniff insisted on talking to every visitor, no matter how tired he was.

"Even laying there in the hospital, he was welcoming people with his eyes," said Eric Johnson, a friend since elementary school.

"He was always in good spirits," Caitlin recalled.

But inside, Cunniff, 45, wanted to die.

The single father did not want to be a burden to Caitlin, 19, or his other children, Courtney, 16, and Ryan, 20 months. A self-employed contractor with no medical insurance, he couldn't imagine being able to work from a wheelchair.

"I didn't consider what I had to be a good quality of life," he said.

Caitlin shook him from his despair. All I care about, she said, is that you are alive.

"Just the thought of being able to hug my daughters, that was my inspiration," he said.

Two weeks after he was beaten, Cunniff lifted his right hand. But he still couldn't move his fingers or legs.

"It was a minimal amount of movement." Johnson said. "I was still thinking that what the doctors said was correct."

Cunniff, however, was thinking about his young son who stayed with him on weekends.

"Before I could ever move," he said. "I laid in be