(MIAMI) -- When a double-flip gone awry left gymnast Jorge Valdez, 20, paralyzed with a dislocated neck, doctors feared he would never walk again. But just seven days after surgeons opted for a still-experimental treatment involving induced hypothermia, Valdez walked out of the hospital.
Valdez was practicing a double flip while making an audition video for the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil when he misjudged his rotation and landed on his head, dislocating his C6 and C7 vertebrae.
"I was unable to move after that, I couldn't feel my legs. I could only open and close my hands a little," Valdez, a Miami native, said. "I was scared. I've been injured before pretty bad, but nothing this bad."
He was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where doctors determined he was a candidate for a cooling procedure that is thought to slow spinal cord damage by reducing swelling at the injury site.
Valdez was a good candidate for cooling because he had an isolated injury and he was a healthy guy with no other medical conditions, said Dr. Steven Vanni, a neurosurgeon at the University of Miami, who treated Valdez. Though he had been able to move his arms after the injury, by the time he was brought to Vanni, he had no motor or sensory function below his neck, making it difficult to predict how much function he would ultimately recover.
"He told my dad he couldn't guarantee that I'd be able to walk again," Valdez says.
After surgeons removed the disc that was pressing on the spine and fixed the dislocations, a catheter cooled by chilled saline was inserted into Valdez's groin. The chilled catheter cooled down his blood as it passed through it, his internal body temperature down to about 92 degrees Fahrenheit. He was kept in a medically-induced coma and in that hypothermic state for 48 hours post-operation.
"I woke up and thought it was the day of the surgery [Thursday], when really it was Saturday," Valdez says. By that Wednesday, he was walking on his own.
Now out of the hospital, Valdez's physical therapy focuses primarily on his hands, where he has some nerve damage.
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