One minute, Edward St. George was on the deck of his family cottage on the St. Lawrence River in Cape Vincent, taking measurements for vinyl siding work he was doing that day.
The next, he was falling from the granite ledge the deck overlooked. His neck and upper back struck the edge of the rock about five feet down. He fell over the cliff, slamming against rock abutments for 15 or 20 feet on his way to the ground. Two or three barrel rolls later, his body came to rest against the back of a neighbor’s cottage.
“All I could do was breathe and blink my eyes. I couldn’t even make a sound. I remember looking out of the corner of my eye and seeing what I thought was my hand, and I couldn’t move it. I couldn’t move anything,” St. George recalls.
The drama that unfolded among the boulders in Cape Vincent stretched into the emergency department and operating rooms at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse and into the physical and occupational therapy unit at Strong Memorial Hospital, near St. George’s home in suburban Rochester.
St. George, 62, – an engineer who worked in middle management at Eastman Kodak, Co. and ITT/Exelis before taking early retirement – may not have survived to walk again were it not for the careful handling by rescuers. In cases of spinal injury, movement could cause further damage. “You could take someone who would otherwise have a recovery, and make it a complete injury,” says Lawrence Chin, MD, who leads the department of neurosurgery at Upstate.
The neighbor who heard a loud thud against her cottage and came to investigate instructed others not to move St. George before dialing 911. He was wedged between her cottage and steep terrain. Rescuers from the Cape Vincent Ambulance Squad and the Thousand Islands Emergency Rescue Service had the tricky task of getting St. George onto a backboard without jostling his body, and then onto a helicopter so he could be flown to Upstate. St. George remembers almost getting sick during the flight, and how the paramedic soothed him.
More than a year after the accident, St. George believes he is 90 percent back to where he was prior to his injury. “My left arm can still sometimes be uncomfortable with nerve pain. My left hand is still numb. But my grip strength and my left arm’s range of motion have returned, thanks to therapy.”
“A lot of little towns, you wouldn’t necessarily expect phenomenal response, but that is indeed what I received,” he says.
St. George underwent computerized tomography at the hospital. The doctor in the emergency department stood over him going over the imaging results. He will never forget her reaction.
“She put her hand across her chest and leaned over to me and said ‘you are my miracle today.’”
One vertebra in his neck was pushed forward. That vertebrae plus the ones above and below it were badly fractured.
Chin developed a plan to use traction to help the middle vertebra slip back into place. St. George wore a weighted halo of metal bars for about 36 hours. He could feel the tug. It was uncomfortable.
“It worked,” he says. “Luckily, a day and a half or almost two days later, I had the surgical procedure.”
Fractured bones will heal, but ligaments that connect the bones of the spine do not. So Chin made two incisions, one in the front of St. George’s neck and another in the back. He installed a plate in the front and screwed rods into place in the back, fusing three vertebrae. Several weeks later, after St. George developed severe numbness in his left arm, the surgeon operated again to fuse a fourth vertebrae.
St. George has been in physical and occupational therapy for more than a year. He has sworn off extension ladders and roof work. Life has gotten back to normal for him.
He appreciates the entire medical team at Upstate, including the emergency department and imaging technicians, nurses, therapists and surgical team, plus everyone who cared for him during his stay of more than two weeks. “The skill and genuine desire to help me were extraordinary.
“The outcome has been terrific. I couldn’t be more grateful,” says St. George. “I’m sure Dr. Chin considers it routine, what he did, but I don’t. When it’s you, it’s a miracle.”