Experimental surgery may mean a major breakthrough for Christopher Reeve and the thousands of others in this country who can't breathe on their own. The paralyzed actor, best known for his role as Superman, as been unable to breathe on his own since a horseback riding accident in 1995. But a new procedure is slowly allowing him to break loose of that ventilator, with the hope that he may someday give it up for good.
"And we turned off the ventilator. Everyone was standing around in case I needed help, but then we were totally quiet in the room. And all you could hear was me breathing through my nose," says Reeve.
"This is it. This is the stimulator. This is what takes the place of the ventilator and which is a little bit smaller than the typical ventilator, and hopefully, with time and effort, this is what will get Chris off the ventilator," says Dr. Raymond Onders, surgeon.
The procedure is called Phrenic or Diaphragm Pacing and involves attaching electrodes to the diaphragm through small incisions. A control box outside the body sends signals causing the diaphragm to contract, sucking air into the lungs.
Before the surgery, Reeve could only breathe on his own for about 10 minutes. Already, he's increased that to 15.
Reeve is the third patient to get the experimental device, but the FDA has approved the surgery for 35 patients as part of a clinical trial.
Reeve was a candidate for the treatment because the phrenic nerves that control breathing, which run from the spinal cord to the diaphragm, were not injured by his fall. The pacing device stimulates those nerves.
The surgery was performed at University Hospitals of Cleveland on February 28th. One of Reeve's major goals has been to get off the respirator. He's been involved in an intensive exercise program that has enabled him to wiggle fingers, sit up partially by himself, and with great effort, breathe without the respirator for several minutes.