Texas Woman Breaks Neck, Back In Airplane Turbulence

A Texas woman may have disobeyed warnings to remain in her seat during flight.

April 21, 2009 — -- A woman who was paralyzed after disobeying warnings to remain in her seat during a turbulent flight over Texas has suffered the same type of catastrophic injuries as the late Christopher Reeve, according to her doctor.

"She is paralyzed from the nipples to her toes," said Dr. Trey Fulp, the spinal surgeon who will perform a second operation today on the passenger at the McAllen Medical Center in McAllen, Tex. The woman was one of two passengers and one crew member on Continental flight 511 from Houston to McAllen who were injured early Saturday morning in mid-flight.

Fulp described the severity of the passenger's injury as a "hangman's fracture," a term used to describe the neck break commonly seen in patients who hang themselves.

Fulp's wife, Kathy Fulp, was one of the first nurses to treat the patient. She told ABCNews.com that the 47-year-old Spanish-speaking woman, whom she declined to identify by name, suffered a broken back at the thoracic level and a fracture between the C1 and C2 vertebrae in her neck, the same injury that left Reeve paralyzed after falling off his horse in 1995.

"She had gotten up and gone to the bathroom," said Fulp. "When she was in the bathroom the flight apparently hit turbulence and she was thrown to the ceiling, which is how she got the C1 C2 fracture. Then she was thrown back against the toilet, which broke her back."

It was not immediately known if she will be able to walk again.

Kathy Fulp said that flight attendants rushed to the passenger's side and moved her into the aisle of the aircraft for the remainder of the approximately 50-minute flight.

The two other individuals were treated for minor injuries, according to Fulp, who said one of them had torn a ligament in her knee. The injuries were sustained during the descent of the aircraft, approximately 15 minutes before landing.

Mary Clarke, a spokeswoman for Continental Airlines, confirmed that three individuals from Flight 511, en route from George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport to the McAllen-Miller International Airport, had been taken to the local hospital after being injured in the turbulence.

Storms in the Houston area had delayed the flight several hours and had caused major delays for both inbound and outbound aircraft.

"The flight experienced turbulence as it approached McAllen," said Clark, who declined to identify the injured passengers and crew member or provide details of the injuries.

"The seat belt sign was illuminated at the time," added Clark. The passenger, who was from McAllen, had gotten up from her seat to use the restroom after the sign to remain seated was illuminated.

Clark said the Boeing 737 had 104 passengers and five crew members and was scheduled to arrive in McAllen at 10:40 p.m. on Friday, April 17, but because of the weather delay did not land until after 2 a.m. on Saturday April 18.

"Our real priority is to assist the customer who remains hospitalized and their family members with their needs," said Clark, who confirmed that the National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the incident.

According to Kathy Fulp, the passenger was operated on for six hours yesterday and was scheduled for surgery again today to repair injuries to her neck.

Described by Trey Fulp as "alert," the passenger was reportedly aware of her condition and managed to wiggle her toes this morning, a positive sign for a patient who is battling paralysis.

The surgeon told ABCNews.com that the patient has been removed from the ventilator and is now able to speak. He described her as "anxious" and "scared" but said that her family -- including her children -- were at the hospital with her.

He said he remains hopeful that she will recover because of the speed at which she was operated on.

"Only time will tell if she will recover," said Fulp. "My gut feeling is that she will because