05/24/2010 05:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

We Just Don't Know That Much About The Spinal Cord

On May 10, 2005, I went surfing and broke my neck badly and have been crippled ever since. I walk with a cane. My balance is bad, sometimes I fall down. It could have been a whole lot worse. I could have been paralyzed from the neck down for life. While in rehab, learning to walk again, at Rancho Los Amigos in Downey California, I saw kids in wheelchairs who will never walk again, and in some cases, never breathe without a ventilator. People with spinal cord injuries learn quickly that not much is known about the spinal column, and that damage to the spinal nerve is irreversible. That is a hard pill to swallow. Having doctors look you in the eye and say, "We really just don't know very much about the spinal cord."

That's about as satisfying as going to a mechanic and hearing "Oh wow, yeah, we don't work on electrical stuff." And we say, "But the patch on your shirt says 'Master Mechanic'?" And he says "Yeah, master of the stuff I know about."

Five years in and I have come to the conclusion that the glum acceptance by the medical community of almost total ignorance of all things spinal is simply unacceptable. Hundreds of thousands of people a year, in the U.S. alone, suffer spinal cord injuries. They and their families all have to get used to what I call the "spinal shrug" from doctors, "We just don't know that much about the spinal cord." And we nod and accept it. Then we think, "Just don't know that much about the spinal cord?" How about learning something about the spinal cord? How about an effort! How about the medical community in this country putting half as much thought to the spinal column that they apply to making better breast implants?

The President of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, Peter Wilderotter, has called the need for focus and medical help for people with spinal cord injury a "civil rights movement." And so it is. If enough people with SCI make enough noise and demand action, there will be action. Real action will only become a priority when the outcry is too loud to be ignored.

In recent years there have been at least three different studies in which lab rats, with completely severed spines, were able to walk and in some cases run after therapy of one kind or another. (stem cells, serotonin and electrical impulses and nerve grafting, respectively.) And then, you hear no more about it. One would assume there are researchers on the case, working toward adapting the same technology or medication that fixed rats, to fix humans, but who knows? Maybe there is more research grant money in making lab rats walk than humans. Perhaps adapting the technology that fixes a rat, to fix humans is a slow and tedious process, while making lab rats walk is much easier and it looks great on a resume.

Long story short, in an era in which we have pills to give a 90 year old man an erection, and procedures to reattach limbs and create artificial hearts, doctors in America can do better by SCI patients. Just tossing up your hands and saying "Spinal cords, ugh!" is not good enough anymore. We deserve better.

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