Experimental surgery offers hope for Travis Robinson

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Posted by on August 15, 2005 at 18:12:44:

Experimental surgery offers hope of recovery

After a swimming injury left 19-year-old Travis Robinson paralyzed, the South Bay diving community rallied to help cover medical expenses.

Travis Robinson's hopes overpower his fears when he thinks about his Nov. 11 hospital date.

He puts aside his anxiety over the nine-hour operation and considers what it would be like to move his fingers. Just the thought of walking again makes him determined to work through months of intense rehabilitation.

Paralyzed two years ago from a swimming accident in Oregon, the 19-year-old son of longtime Redondo Beach diver John "Jocko" Robinson plans to join a small group of Americans who have undergone an experimental spinal cord operation in Portugal.

At Hospital de Egas Moniz in Lisbon, the former varsity football player is counting on neuropathologist Carlos Lima to remove olfactory mucosal tissue from his nose and implant it into his spinal cord, generating growth in nerve and stem cells that -- he hopes -- will increase his mobility.

What is known about the operation's success is mostly anecdotal. Some spinal cord injury patients have said they could stand up and move their feet after undergoing the surgery and rehabilitation, and others have been able to lift light arm weights and lean their bodies against exercise balls.

The procedure, estimated to cost around $50,000, cannot be performed legally in the United States without approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Robinson said the price won't be covered by the family's health insurance, nor will they get help with the costly rehabilitation afterward.

So for months, the South Bay's close-knit diving community has rallied around them, hosting fund-raisers, raffles and dive events to cover medical expenses and physical therapy. When he returns from Portugal, Robinson expects to spend several months at Project Walk, an injury recovery center in Carlsbad.

Dive N' Surf, where the elder Robinson has worked for the past 28 years, found a company to host a Web site -- www.helptravis.org -- and ordered shipments of royal blue "Inspire Hope: Help Travis" bracelets. A benefit Thursday with live music and a buffet is planned at Sangria in Hermosa Beach, and a Palm Springs golf outing is shaping up for this fall.

"It's actually been great, and we've had a lot of corporate support as well," said Jon Davy, general manager of Dive N' Surf, which has taken the younger Robinson under its wing.

The goal is to raise $100,000, Davy said, but "if we can't get them all the way there, to provide a significant amount."

"I watched Travis grow up," said Charlie Orr of California Classic Equipment Divers, another group organizing an upcoming fund-raiser.

Learning about Robinson's accident two years ago "was indescribable," Orr said. "I just don't have a word for it. ... We're a small group, but we're pretty close."

So close, in fact, that their combined efforts have already raised an impressive $54,000 for the part-time South Bay resident, according to the ever-changing Web site tally.

Robinson, whose parents are divorced, grew up in Salem, Ore., with two step-siblings and his mother, Ann Carr. But his summers were reserved for visiting his father in Westchester, working at the Redondo Beach shop and spending spare time in the water.

"I started him at about 3," boasted Jocko Robinson, who repairs scuba equipment and dive gear for the shop. "We were always in the water."

Late night swim accident

Travis Robinson's life changed on June 28, 2003, the night he left California for Oregon and met up with friends for a late night swim. After he leapt from the side of the above-ground pool and prepared for a belly flop, "I tucked when I was in the air because I didn't want a sore stomach," he recalled.

But his head either hit the side or the bottom of the pool as he broke the water surface, sending a strange sensation through his body, where "everything kind of tingled."

That was one of Robinson's last memories before paramedics rushed him to the hospital.

The paralysis ate away at the teenager's confidence and independence and led him in and out of therapy. He learned to slowly stretch his neck and shoulder muscles and gained mobility in his arms through "a little bit of moving here, a little bit of twitching here," the elder Robinson said.

The former 200-pound, 6-foot-2-inch athlete returned to school that October, learning to take notes in class using a grip stick on a laptop computer. He was admitted to Western Oregon University -- on time -- and declared history as his major.

Despite his constant struggle to accept the way he is, however, Robinson was always hoping for something better.

After learning about Lima's procedure from a PBS documentary tracking the progress of several patients, he connected with the Center for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery at Detroit Medical Center's Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, which has a partnership with the hospital in Lisbon.

Steven Hinderer, a physiatrist specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation who serves as director of the Center for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery, said patients are considered and accepted based on their mental health, age and the extent of their injuries.

Tissue growth slows with age

Hinderer said he has screened more than 50 candidates for the surgery since early 2003, 13 of whom have been accepted through his center. Because olfactory tissue growth can decrease with age, most candidates are 40 and younger, he said, but older applicants might be considered. Robinson believes about 40 people have had the surgery to date.

One Detroit woman injured in an auto accident allowed a Knight-Ridder reporter to track her progress after having Lima's surgery and undergoing therapy. She has been able to stand and take small steps, even bend her knees and lift her arms. She had been paralyzed from her biceps down.

Although Robinson said he's never met with Hinderer, the doctor passed along his medical records and provided a communication channel to Lima. He applied for consideration through the center as well as the hospital, only to learn later from Lima he qualified and was assigned a date: Nov. 11.

Lima's procedure implants tissue from the nasal lining into the spinal cord, Hinderer said. Because the nose's olfactory mucosal tissue contains nerve cells, stem cells and olfactory ensheathing glia -- all of which are immature -- they are believed to be capable of regenerating and developing within the injured cord.

Hinderer said federal law prohibits him from recommending Lima's surgery, but he can offer patients information and turn them in the doctor's direction. He said he's traveled to Lisbon and watched Lima in the operating room.

"It's a very competent group of physicians," Hinderer said. "I'm confident in saying (patients) will be well cared for there."

Hinderer said he plans to apply for FDA approval later this year to perform the same procedure in the United States, but by law, he can't endorse it today.

"The reality is people were always seeking out different opportunities for surgery. And the information available was very limited," Hinderer said. "This is certainly not a cure. It offers the potential for recovery, we think. ... (But) ultimately, it's up to them."

Family overcomes skepticism

Jocko Robinson said the family approached the decision with a skeptical eye. Ultimately, however, they decided to try it, and co-workers, community members and friends started to chip in.

Had it not been for them, the elder Robinson said, he would have sold his house in exchange for his son's operation. "We're hopeful now," he said.

Travis Robinson said he understands some patients learn -- even after rehabilitation -- it is unlikely they will walk again. That hasn't deterred him.

"Even anything would be great," he said. "Even if I (get) full use of my hands and arms back."

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