September 20, 2005
Experienced staff pave way for spinal cord injured teen's remarkable recovery
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—Brock Archuleta earned Pitcher of the Year as a high school sophomore, so he’s no stranger to long hours spent readying for the rigors of baseball season.
But all that hard work now seems like a cakewalk compared to his latest challenge. For the last year, Archuleta has been battling back from a paralyzing spinal cord injury.
“One day of therapy is like a week of baseball practice,” says Archuleta. “It feels like you just got through running 3 miles.”
Coaching Archuleta’s comeback have been the experienced staff of the spinal cord injury program at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson.
They began working with the young athlete a scant 72 hours after he tumbled headfirst over the handlebars of a four-wheeler and fractured his neck. And the results so far have been remarkable.
As he begins his senior year at Richland High School, the 17-year-old can walk with the aid of crutches. And he has even thrown a few batting practices from the seat of his wheelchair.
Before Archuleta arrived at Methodist, doctors gave him a dismal prognosis. “I couldn’t move anything from the neck down and they said I’d be like that forever,” remembers Archuleta. “My mama hit the floor.”
Kim King wasn’t down for long, though. As Archuleta moved to Methodist, his mom was at his side, soaking in everything she could about the rehab process. She also was discovering just how tenacious her son could be. “I’m so in awe of Brock,” she said. “He keeps me up. He is so strong.”
Because Archuleta’s fifth cervical vertebra was fractured, he was expected to lose the use of muscles in his arms, hands, wrists, chest, abdomen and legs. Then a nerve test revealed that his injury was “incomplete,” meaning he might regain movement below the injury site.
“I was told to move my right foot like I was pushing a gas pedal and my right leg moved,” Archuleta said. “It shocked the doctor. He stumbled backwards.”
One factor in Archuleta’s favor is he was given a drug called 4-amino-pyridine soon after his injury. Dr. Michael Winkelmann, a rehabilitation medicine physician at Methodist, said the potassium channel blocking agent seems to increase a person’s ability to recover from a spinal cord injury.
Archuleta also was able to take advantage of Methodist’s weight-supporting, treadmill gait-training system. As he dangled from a contraption resembling a parachute harness, physical therapists “walked” his legs along the moving treadmill.
Methodist physical therapist Lisa Barnes said the system helps retrain the body in the reciprocal motion of walking and also improves endurance and cardiovascular health. Because it’s a weight-bearing exercise, it’s also good for bone density and it helps keep spasms under control.
As he tackled the demands of therapy, Archuleta stayed positive. And his easygoing nature and lazy grin “stole everybody’s heart,” Barnes said. He was like the little brother everybody wanted to help. Kim Willis, his most recent physical therapist at Methodist, even pitched in to proof his term papers this past spring.
Archuleta’s plight touched the Richland community, as well, spawning fervent prayers and ardent fund-raising. Students bought T-shirts that had “Brock” and praying hands on the front, and “Archuleta” and his No. 9 on the back.
His teammates also wore No. 9 on their caps this past baseball team. And when they made the playoffs, Archuleta was invited to toss out the first pitch.
Methodist occupational therapist Ashlee Ricotta said Archuleta’s competitive spirit has served him well. “He never wants to quit,” she said. “The more we challenge him, the harder he tries.”
A big goal was getting back to driving and Ricotta helped Archuleta get the necessary modifications for his vehicle. He now ferries himself to school in a Ford Ranger pickup, complete with a left foot accelerator and a special wheelchair lift.
Willis recently incorporated the truck into one of Archuleta’s therapy sessions by having him give it a good washing. “Whatever he was interested in before, we’ve tried to get back to those activities,” she said. “We worked on him standing and throwing the baseball and he plays Nintendo all the time.”
Archuleta continues his therapy at home, too, thanks to the support of his ever-vigilant Mom. “If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t do half the stuff I’m supposed to do,” Archuleta said. “She pushes me.”
To maintain his walking ability, Archuleta has vowed to use crutches whenever he’s at home. He plans to pilot his manual wheelchair through the crowded hallways between classes. And he has a power wheelchair stashed away at school for jaunts to the baseball field.
“I’ll throw some batting practice,” he explained. “And I like to tell the coach what he is doing wrong.”
And it’s a good bet Coach Scott Rimes will listen. He’s already familiar with Archuleta’s winning ways. “He has done a remarkable job (of recovering),” said the Richland High School baseball coach. “I knew if he took the same attitude he did on the mound that he would battle back.”
Physician, parents urge ATV caution
Four-wheelers should come with a forewarning.
That’s the philosophy of Dr. Michael Winkelmann, a Methodist Rehabilitation Center physician who well knows the dangers of the popular all-terrain vehicles.
During a recent five-month period, 17-year-old Brock Archuleta of Richland was just the first of five Mississippi teenagers admitted to Methodist following devastating four-wheeler wrecks. Four suffered spinal cord injuries, while one was left with a traumatic brain injury.
Five victims in five months sounds fluky, but Winkelmann said it’s actually business as usual. Since 2000, Methodist has treated a dozen people with spinal cord injuries and an untold number with brain injuries—all related to ATVs.
”It seems like every month I have at least one patient who has had an accident on an all-terrain vehicle,” he said. “They are usually younger individuals who have a lack of respect for the dangers of these vehicles.”
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that there were 125,500 ATV-related injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms in 2003, an increase of about 10 percent over the previous year. About 31 percent of the injured were under age 16, an alarming stat that has several consumer groups advocating tough laws for ATV users.
The family of brain injury victim Matt Moorehead of Pascagoula is among those joining the chorus. “Helmets should be a requirement (for ATV users)—no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Matt’s grandmother Jimmie Hanning of Pascagoula.
“There should be an age limit, too,” said his mom Liz Moorehead. “And when you get an ATV, you should be certified and go through a class once a year for safety. I also don’t think you should be on an ATV on the road. I think you should be in the woods.”
It’s also important to use the vehicle “for what it’s designed for,” said Archuleta, who began riding ATVs as a young boy. His accident occurred as he did some recreational cruising on an ATV outfitted for hunting. As he tried to jump a hill, the vehicle’s heavy front end nose dived. Archuleta was tossed over the handlebars and wound up with a compound fracture in his fifth cervical vertebra.
Age 19 at the time of his accident, Matt also was a veteran ATV rider. And he, too, suffered the consequences of piloting an unfamiliar four-wheeler.
After spending the day readying a Greene County hunting camp for deer season, Matt obligingly agreed to drive a friend’s winch-equipped ATV back to camp for him. “He didn’t know to make sure the winch was locked into place,” his mom said. The winch cable locked up one of the ATV’s wheels, spilling Matt—who wasn’t wearing a helmet—headfirst onto a hard asphalt road.
As serious as Matt and Archuleta’s injuries were, it could have been much worse. From January 1, 1982 to Dec. 31, 2003, a reported 5,791 people (178 of them Mississippians) were killed in ATV accidents.
It’s those dismal stats—and the heartache he sees firsthand—that has made Winkelmann a staunch advocate for steering children away from ATVs. “I’ve seen so many injuries with absolutely dismal outcomes, I won’t let my kids on a four-wheeler,” he said.
ATV Safety Rules
- Always wear a helmet and other protective gear.
- Never ride on public roads.
- Never ride under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
- Never carry a passenger on a single-rider vehicle.
- Ride an ATV that’s right for your age—under 70cc for ages 6 and under, 70cc to 90cc for ages 12 and older and over 90cc for ages 16 and older.
- Supervise riders younger than 16.
- Ride only on designated trails at a safe speed.
- Take an ATV RiderCourse; call toll-free 1-800-887-2887 for information on available classes.
Source: ATV Safety Institute
Methodist Rehabilitation Center is one of only 16 hospitals in the country designated as a Traumatic Brain Injury Model System by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and is only one of two in the state accepted into the prestigious Council of Teaching Hospitals. It is also the only hospital in the state to be named one of America’s best by US News and World Report.