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How 'Perfect' Care Saved an Athlete

Back on His Feet
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Feb. 19, 2001 -- With less than two minutes left in the game, Ohio State's football team held a commanding 45-6 lead and was running out the clock. The ball was snapped and handed off to a 231-pound running back.

On the other side, freshman Penn State defensive back Adam Taliaferro, 18, saw that the play, an end sweep, was coming right at him.

"I knew he was a big back, so I decided that I was going to take his legs," Taliaferro remembers of the game last fall. "He was running at a slow pace, and then he sped up. My head was at the wrong place at the wrong time. His knee hit the top of my helmet, and snapped my head downward." And then, darkness.

At the stadium and on TV, tens of thousands of horrified fans watched the incident and its aftermath. Taliaferro awoke and opened his eyes, and saw doctors and trainers looming over him. He tried to get up, but his body didn't respond. He could move only his eyelids. As word spread that he might be paralyzed, people on the sidelines began to weep. But Taliaferro doesn't remember the collision. The last thing he recalls is locking the Buckeye bull in his crosshairs.

Every year, 10,000 Americans are partially or completely paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. An overwhelming majority (81%) are young men 15 to 33 years old injured in automobile crashes, acts of violence, or falls, according to the Spinal Cord Information Network. Sports accidents account for 7.1% of all spinal cord injuries.

There have been "miracle" recoveries, but the diagnosis of a spinal cordinjury usually means life in a wheelchair. Fortunately for Taliaferro,doctors determined his spinal cord was bruised but not severed. Othersaren't so lucky: For every Christopher Reeve, the actor who was paralyzed ina horseback riding accident and remains upbeat and sure that a cure is near(and has written twice to Taliaferro), thousands of others remainemotionally devastated by their injuries. But those who do spinal cordresearch -- work that was begun in earnest approximately two decades ago --now say they see reason for hope.

 "The whole system is doing better," says William E. Staas Jr., MD, president and medical director of Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where Taliaferro was treated after leaving Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. "The quality of recovery and life is much, much improved. And we will continue to make progress."

There is extensive research on therapies to help people with what are called "complete" injuries -- complete in that the person cannot function. Still, scientists like Naomi Kleitman, PhD, of the Miami Project To Cure Paralysis, say that while there is a lot of hope and even good preliminary results, nothing looks like a cure.

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