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How 'Perfect' Care Saved an Athlete

Back on His Feet

continued...

 "We've learned to meticulously care for the patient from the moment of injury," says Staas, who cared for Taliaferro. "With traumatic spinal cord injury, it's important to get steroids on board and stabilize the neck so that the partial [paralysis] doesn't become complete."

Lying on the field last Sept. 23, Taliaferro says he had no idea he was paralyzed. All he knew was that his body wasn't listening to him.

"I couldn't feel anything on my body," he says. "Everything was numb. I was trying to get up, and nothing was moving."

Taliaferro had fractured the fifth cervical vertebra near the base of the neck. Lucky for him, Wayne Sebastianelli, MD, Penn State's team doctor, knew exactly what to do. Within minutes of the accident, he immobilized Taliaferro's neck and body and got him into an ambulance, where the fallen football player immediately was given intravenous steroids.

"If we sat down and planned the perfect system of care, this man received it starting right on the football field," Staas tells WebMD. "Everything that should have happened in the ideal medical situation, he got and it worked."

Two days after the accident, Taliaferro had spinal fusion surgery. The prognosis was grim. One doctor told Taliaferro's father that the chance his son would walk again was 3 in 100. Taliaferro never heard those odds. He knew he was badly hurt, but never considered not walking again.

"I found out during rehabilitation that the prognosis was that I probably wasn't going to walk," he says. "Thank God that it worked out."

Weeks after the accident, Taliaferro was transferred to Magee. Although he couldn't move his limbs, Taliaferro could distinguish between sharp and dull, and knew which direction his toes were pointing. "That told us that certain parts of his spinal cord were working," Staas says. He put Taliaferro on a program to keep his joints from stiffening. When he regained movement, the program switched to muscle-strengthening exercises.

In January, four months after the harrowing accident, Taliaferro walked out of Magee on crutches. Today he walks without any aid, and spends four hours a day at Magee working on building his endurance and balance. He knows he will never play football again.

"I've recommended against it to him and his family," Staas says. "Emotionally, he's made that tradeoff of walking and not playing football."

Taliaferro hopes to return to the classroom this summer, and says his doctor has told him he might be driving soon. He plans his first visit back to Penn State on Feb. 23, to attend a basketball game. And while the football team's defensive coordinator already has promised him a role on the sidelines, Taliaferro has one more football-related goal.

"I'm working up to jogging so I can come up the tunnel for the first game," he says. "We play Miami that first game, and I'm looking forward to it."

Bob Calandra is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several magazines, including People and Life. He lives in Glenside, Pa.

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