Actor Christopher Reeve has undergone an experimental surgery that doctors believe will enable him to breathe regularly without a respirator for the first time since he broke his neck in a horseback accident in 1995.
Physicians at University Hospitals of Cleveland used minimally invasive surgery to implant tiny electrodes, which control his breathing by stimulating the muscles of his diaphragm with a pacemaker-like device.
Using the device, the paralyzed Superman star is able to breathe without a respirator for 15 minutes at a time.
At a news conference yesterday, Reeve said it was a relief to escape the constant noise when the respirator was first turned off. "All you could hear was me breathing through my nose - regular rhythmic breathing from my nose for the first time in nearly eight years," he said.
With the respirator turned off, Reeve is also able to talk and detect odors, such as when the medical team brought him a cup of coffee. "I actually woke up and smelled the coffee," he said.
Dr. Raymond Onders, who performed the experimental procedure, said the team is working to strengthen the muscles of Reeve's diaphragm, which have not been used for eight years. "We're strengthening it to go 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that will take a little time," he said.
About 200 to 300 spinal cord injury patients might be eligible for the procedure once it is approved, Onders said.
Before the experimental procedure, Reeve was able to breathe using his neck muscles to force air into his lungs for as long as 12 minutes, but only with great effort.
The procedure works because most breathing is controlled by the diaphragm. When the diaphragm contracts, it creates a vacuum in the chest cavity, drawing air in.
Physicians have previously used a surgical procedure called a thoracotomy in which the chest is opened and electrodes are attached to the phrenic nerves, which control the diaphragm. That open-chest procedure entails substantially more risk and requires a long hospital stay for recuperation.
The new procedure was developed by Onders and Dr. Anthony DiMarco of University Hospitals in association with biomedical engineers at Case Western Reserve University. One key difference is that the surgeons use a laparoscope to perform the surgery in a minimally invasive manner, requiring only an overnight hospital stay. The second major difference is that the electrodes are implanted in muscles near to, but not touching, the nerves, so there is very little chance of damaging them.
Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.