Scott Spann – A Story of Hope

Posted on May 3, 2011

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The following is a guest post by Scott Spann. Scott was an All-American and NCAA champion at Texas in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s; he held five American records and five world records and won a bronze medal at the 1979 Pan American Games.  His son Scott now attends University of Texas and is a 2008 Olympian.

As an orthopedic spine surgeon I have worked with men and women suffering from spinal cord injuries for the better part of twenty years. For much of that time I did my best to empathize with their pain and the challenges they faced, but as an outsider to their experience there was no way for me to truly understand.

But then, in the blink of an eye all that changed.

It was September 25, 2005 in Austin, Texas. Temperatures were record-breaking. On such a day most people would stay indoors in the cool respite of air conditioning, but I’m a stubborn sort and refused to cancel my Sunday bike ride. So in 107-degree heat I climbed on my Cannondale and took off. I chose a familiar route, along Highway 360, one popular among cyclists in Austin.

It didn’t take long for dehydration to set in, for my body to fatigue and my mind to fog. I remember looking up, seeing an SUV on the roadside in the distance then promptly looking back down at the road whirring by beneath me.

The next thing I knew I was flying through the air, the side of my head smashing into the abandoned SUV, landing with a thud against searing blacktop. I felt nothing but the burning in my face, unable to move anything except my eyes. I knew instantly I was a quadriplegic.

I may be a surgeon, one who knows what such injury looks like from the inside. But I am also a man, and when lying alone on the side of the road, praying to live and for someone to find me, my experience and knowledge were meaningless. I was terrified. My head full of statistics and prognoses, what was most frightening were the images of an unknown future. How would I care for my family? What would I do if I couldn’t perform surgery? Who would I be? What kind of man?

In those first solitary moments I went through what I can only imagine anyone does under such circumstances. Hanging on a precipice where death is as likely as life, it is easy to wonder which would be better. My eyes searched the sky as I pleaded, even bargained, with God. Then, from somewhere inside the voice of the warrior athlete I had been in my youth came to the surface. With it came all I knew of overcoming adversity, of winning, of never giving up. And all I knew of the power of hope.

Today, nearly six years later, I look down at my hands and wonder at just how I got from that roadside back to the operating room. How exactly is it that I, once diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia, am able to stand for hours with my mind focused and my hands still, performing surgery?

Looking back I give thanks for the two doctors who found me that sweltering day, for the professionals in the ER, the surgeon who fused five consecutive vertebrae, the physical therapists who put up with me and my family who never gave up on me.

I also give credit to a few choices I made early in my recovery. First was my demand to be given cortisone immediately upon arrival to the ER. Considered controversial, it’s a choice I didn’t hesitate to make. Next came one of the most important decisions I have ever made in my life. One week after surgery I begged an occupational therapist named Debbie Tindle to take me on as a patient. Debbie’s primary modalities, craniosacral and myofascial release therapy are considered “alternative” or “complementary” in most medical circles, and before my accident I wouldn’t have given either much credence. Now I know better.

There is one last factor in my recovery that I must share, the most important of all. Hope. I have seen the flame of hope extinguished in the eyes of spinal cord injury patients. Being told there is no hope, they resign themselves to the low expectations of convention. And so, never achieve any more. I say this: hope is the greatest, most vital medicine of all. It is the spark that ignites possibility and motivates effort. It is my wish for medicine to begin embracing the gifts of instilling hope and for patients to ignore the warnings of having too much. For without hope, nothing is possible. With it, who knows? If a recovery such as mine can happen to me, it can happen for others. Hope, I believe, is the first step.

Scott Spann, MD

Dr. Scott Spann is an orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas and an innovator and leader in the clinical use of autologous stem cells. His blog and further information can be found at: www.scottspannmd.com.

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