Byrd's future remains unclear after surgery 7-hour operation stabilizes spine

December 03, 1992|By Rich Cimini | Rich Cimini,Newsday

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- New York Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd, paralyzed below the waist after fracturing his fifth cervical vertebra in last Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, underwent seven hours of surgery yesterday to stabilize his spinal column. Doctors termed it a successful operation, but stuck to the original prognosis: It's still unknown if Byrd will walk again.

"It's a very difficult question to answer," team orthopedist Elliot Hershman said in a late afternoon news briefing at the Jets' training complex. After a few moments of ominous silence, Hershman added: "I prefer to use the term 'hopeful.' "

Hershman, noting that "the damage was extensive," said it could take as long as two years before making the final determination on whether Byrd's paralysis is permanent.

Byrd's operation, performed by a team of six doctors at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, "went as planned, achieving satisfactory stability of the spine," Hershman said.

Byrd, 26, was given an investigative drug called Sygen, which has not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for general use in the United States.

The drug, administered intravenously after the doctors received consent from Byrd, his family and the manufacturer, is used to "promote healing of the spinal cord," Hershman said.

The operation consisted of two phases:

* Bone fragments and disk material were removed from the C-5 vertebra via an incision through the front of the neck. A piece of bone from the pelvis was grafted at the site of the removed material. Next, a metal plate, two to three inches long, was affixed with four screws to the front of the spine, extending from the fifth to sixth vertebrae.

* Next, two more metal plates and a bone graft were attached to the back of the spine through an incision in the back of the neck.

Byrd, who was under general anesthesia, was removed from his halo brace and was placed in a cervical collar. He will remain at Lenox Hill for about two weeks before being taken to a rehabilitation center for several months.

"Overall, the amount of improvement that may occur will take some time to determine," Hershman said at the packed news briefing in the second-floor auditorium at Weeb Ewbank Hall in Hempstead.

During the operation, the surgical team headed by Dr. Patrick O'Leary and Dr. Martin Camins discovered fragments that did not appear in the pre-operation evaluations. They were "quite small additional chips," Hershman said.

The 6-foot-5, 266-pound Byrd suffered the injury in a violent, head-on collision with teammate Scott Mersereau, a 6-3, 275-pound nose tackle. It occurred as they looped toward Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg from opposite directions. Byrd was transported by ambulance to Lenox Hill Hospital, where he has remained in stable condition.

The degree of paralysis has not changed since the injury, Hershman said. Byrd has partial use of his upper extremities. He has the use of his deltoids and biceps in both arms, allowing him to move both arms up and out. Byrd can move his triceps and wrists on the right arm, but not the left. He has no use of his hands and fingers.

"When people ask if he can hug someone, he truly can," Hershman said.

Byrd has no use of his legs, except for involuntary movement of the feet. Because his injury is an incomplete spinal-cord lesion, he has sensation in his legs, but "if you ask Dennis to move his feet, he cannot," Hershman said. "He has no motor function."

That Byrd has an incomplete spinal-cord lesion makes his rTC prognosis "somewhat better," but Hershman, offering no guarantees, added, "That's not to say all patients with incomplete lesions will recover."

Byrd's day began at 7:30 a.m. with one hour of pre-operation preparation. Then came seven hours of surgery. As Byrd lay on the operating table, his teammates were practicing at Hofstra.

Coach Bruce Coslet updated the players on Byrd's condition before and after practice. Byrd was scheduled to talk with his teammates tomorrow by conference call.

In the locker room yesterday, the players recorded personal messages to Byrd on a tape recorder that was passed among the team.

For two weeks, Byrd will continue to receive Sygen, which according to Hershman will cause "minimal side effects." He did not provide specifics.

The doctors hope the drug will regenerate neural tissue, hastening the healing process. But they can't be certain.

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