Lacrosse Player Cheats Paralysis, Thanks to Strong Neurosurgeon

August 07, 2000

What began as a typical college lacrosse game last fall, ended just 15 minutes into play when University of South Carolina sophomore and Seneca Falls native Sean Elston hit head-on-head with another player.

Believing that it was nothing more than a "stinger" -- a common lacrosse injury involving the neck -- Elston was walked off the field by his coach and teammates. From the sidelines, he appeared okay, but when Elston began babbling incoherently during the ride home, the gravity of the situation was realized. Minutes after walking into the emergency room of a Columbia, SC, hospital, emergency personnel had Elston strapped down and his neck immobilized. Despite his ability to walk, Elston had broken his neck, having fractured his C5 vertebrae in three places. Had Elston continued to play out the remainder of the game or had he turned his head the wrong way -- even slightly -- he would have been permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

Luckily for Elston, quick thinking on the part of Strong neurosurgeon Seth Zeidman, M.D., spared him a life of quadreplegia. Elston was stabilized and flown to Rochester, where Zeidman and his team performed what is known as a 360 front and back fusion, removing the shattered vertebrae, as well as two adjacent disks, through the front of Elston's body. A bone graft and a plate were then inserted through the front incision, replacing the damaged vertebrae. Zeidman then made an incision in Elston's back and inserted two additional plates to stabilize the spine. "This was a very complex procedure," said Zeidman. "Sean had bone fragments throughout his spinal canal and one of his discs was pressed severely against his spinal cord. It took a lot of surgery, but it was absolutely necessary given the seriousness of his condition."

Although he went back to cracking the books, Elston is not chasing the ball across the lacrosse field these days. His injury is one that requires months, if not years of rehabilitation, and Zeidman has banned him from the sport until he is fully healed. Elston currently swims two hours a day and weight-trains five times a week as part of his rehab regimen. Naturally, deep disappointment lingers over his inability to play his favorite sport, but Elston has come to realize what is really important in life. "I feel blessed that I am still walking and talking after everything that has happened to me. I no longer take walking for granted and I have come to appreciate just how fragile life can be."

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