Cooling May Have Helped Save Everett's Spine

Infusion of ice-cold saline and steroids may help Kevin Everett walk again.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 9:04 AM

Sept. 12, 2007 — -- When paramedics wheeled Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett into Buffalo's Millard Fillmore Hospital Sunday, a life-threatening spine injury had rendered him functionally quadriplegic -- and potentially paralyzed for life.

But an experimental treatment may have drastically improved his chances of walking again, according to some doctors.

The treatment, which involves an infusion of ice-cold saline, nudges the body into a state of hypothermia -- a step aimed at limiting the cascade of events in the body that can lead to further spinal cord damage after an injury.

Dr. Kevin Gibbons, one of the neurosurgeons at Millard Fillmore Hospital who operated on Everett, said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon that his team had decided to go forward with the cooling after Everett's body temperature rose dramatically after his injury.

"Although we are not sure that cold temperature is good, we know high temperature is bad in a neurological injury," Gibbons said.

But the procedure may have done more than simply cool Everett down; it may also have helped limit the damage caused by the injury.

And now that Everett has regained a small degree of movement in his ankles, legs and arms, some doctors say the hypothermia treatment may have saved the football star from further impairment.

"I think there is great potential for the use of hypothermia," said Edward Hall, director of the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center at the University of Kentucky's Chandler Medical Center. "The work that has been shown to show the effect of hypothermia in animal studies has been first-rate. They've shown very clearly that it can work in experimental models."

However, a number of neurologists point out that the controversial treatment is still largely unproved and has not been widely tested in humans.

"I was very surprised to hear about the recovery scenario of Mr. Everett," said Stephen Scheff, professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Kentucky. "Cooling of the system is somewhat controversial, and some of the most well-controlled experiments, such as those performed at the Miami Project, have shown it doesn't work well."

Everett, 25, sustained the spinal cord injury during the Bills' season opener Sunday at the start of the second half after tackling the Denver Broncos' Domenik Hixon.

The Bills' team orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, announced a day after the accident that chances were slim that Everett would ever walk again.

But Tuesday, Everett moved his arms and legs under his own volition when partially awakened -- a promising sign that suggested he may be able to overcome the initial prognosis of permanent paralysis.

As for exactly how cooling down the body may help ward off paralysis, doctors are still unclear. But researchers theorize that hypothermia may protect sensitive nerve tissues by slowing down certain chemical reactions in the body that lead to swelling and irritation -- processes that have long been viewed as partial culprits in spinal nerve death.