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Reeve Injury Called Among Worst Possible : Accident: Experts say breaks high in spinal column are potentially devastating. But it could be months before extent of actor’s disability is known.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As actor Christopher Reeve remained paralyzed and unable to breathe on his own five days after breaking his neck in an equestrian accident, experts in spinal cord injuries said Thursday that the circumstances--breaks high in the spinal column--indicate a potentially devastating injury, among the worst imaginable.

“A spinal cord injury is always serious and the higher it is the more serious it is--and this is the highest injury you can have,” said Dr. Mary Ellen Cheung, program director for spinal cord research at the federal government’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “It sounds like a hangman’s type fracture.”

Reeve, an accomplished horseman, broke the top two cervical vertebrae and injured his spinal cord when he was thrown from his horse and landed on his head during competitive trials Saturday in an event in Culpepper, Va.

Cheung and other experts--none of whom are directly connected to Reeve’s case--hastened to add that it could be weeks, even months, before the extent of Reeve’s disability is known.

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“Every case is individual and there’s always room for a miracle with spinal cord injuries,” Cheung said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” agreed Dr. John Toerge, an osteopathic rehabilitation physician at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington. Signs of “recovery could be days or months away.”

But he acknowledged a probable grim outlook “as time slips by and there’s no change.”

In the best scenario, the 42-year-old “Superman” star could regain some movement and sensation; in the worst, he could be a quadriplegic on a ventilator--with no movement or body functions below his chin, unable to breathe naturally, they said.

Reeve is at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where he remained in “serious but stable” condition Thursday.

Reeve’s wife, Dana Morosini, and their 2-year-old son also were at the hospital, along with Reeve’s two children from his longtime relationship with British-born model Gae Exton.

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Reeve’s mother, Barbara Johnson, said in a Philadelphia television interview Thursday that her son is trying to speak and to understand why he is in the hospital. “He is able to mouth words and it’s difficult for us to understand him,” Johnson said in an interview with WPVI-TV.

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His physicians said that it would be premature to speculate on his prognosis. They would say only that they are considering surgery to stabilize his spinal column.

“That’s to stabilize the bones so they don’t slip and slide into the spinal cord and create further damage,” Toerge said.

The spinal column consists of a series of joined vertebrae that form the support for the body’s skeleton. The spinal cord is the thick cord of nerve tissue of the central nervous system extending down the spinal canal from the medulla oblongata, the lowest part of the brain, where breathing, circulation and other functions are controlled.

Thus, an injury of Reeve’s type, where the vertebrae high up are broken, causing injury to the spinal cord, could disrupt the signals that regulate breathing, as well as virtually all bodily functions below the level of the injury, including movement.

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“It’s almost like the complete separation of the brain from your body,” Cheung said.

The 6-foot-4 Reeve, who was wearing a protective helmet and vest, had cleared two of 18 obstacle jumps in a cross-country event when his mount stopped abruptly at the third, a 3-foot log jump. The action caused Reeve to flip over the front of the horse to the ground, where he landed on his head, snapping his neck.


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