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Tree trimmer survives blow from 800-pound pine, overcomes paralysis at Methodist Rehab Center

Spinal Cord Injuries

By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service

In the tree trimming business, warning shouts mean one thing: Run for your life.

“When someone hollers your name, you don’t look,” says Mike McNair of Richland. “You move and then look.”

He tried as much on Nov. 10, but didn’t move fast enough. One short step from safety, he got clobbered by 800 pounds of Southern pine.

“It was a freak accident,” said the owner of McNair Tree Service. “A tree I cut fell on another tree lying on the ground and it bounced up and hit me.”

Fortunately, McNair was at the home of pulmonary physician Dr. Barry Whites of Ridgeland, who came running when he heard screaming. He found McNair face-down in a ravine.

“Thank goodness the tree was not on top of him,” Dr. Whites said. “It mashed him into the ground, but the soil was soft enough that I could dig around his mouth and nose and get him breathing again.”

To look at McNair today, it’s hard to believe that doctors once thought he might spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But those at the scene of the accident can attest that he’s fortunate to be alive. The trauma triggered violent seizures, and Dr. Whites had his hands full trying to maintain an airway for McNair.

“I went crazy,” McNair said. “They had to hold me down to keep me from hurting myself worse. The doc even held my tongue to keep me from choking.”

When rescue workers finally lifted McNair into an ambulance, his co-workers got an inkling of how hard he had been hit. The dirt below him bore a perfect indentation of his body.

“There’s no doubt the Lord was looking out for him that day,” Dr. Whites said. “It was a scary situation.”

How scary became evident as emergency room physicians assessed McNair’s injuries. His spine was damaged in five places, causing paralysis from the waist down. His collar bone and several ribs were fractured. And he suffered blunt trauma to his chest and a cut on his head.

“We don’t know if we can save him,” doctors told McNair’s wife Norma. But she refused to accept that her strong husband — a man who had been a full-time firefighter for 19 years — could be at death’s door. “I said this can’t be as bad as they’re telling me,” Norma said.

It turns out she was right. By the next night, Norma had good news to report in her green suede prayer journal. “Doctor states Mike felt him squeeze his toes, so there is feeling in his feet,” reads her Nov. 11 entry. “We are all rejoicing. Mike will walk again.”

Nineteen days later, McNair began working toward that goal at Methodist Rehabilitation Center, home of the state’s most comprehensive spinal cord injury program. “The case worker for his Worker’s Comp insurance suggested Methodist Rehab,” Norma said. “And he consistently got better from the moment we got there.”

While McNair vowed he would leave rehab on his own two feet, it was hardly a rational notion. His injuries were extensive, and he was severely debilitated from 20 days in ICU. Nevertheless, Norma was soon chronicling a long list of McNair’s rehab triumphs — from the first time he stood (Jan. 8) to his first hesitant steps (Jan. 15). On Feb. 21, she laid down her pen to snap a photo of McNair exiting Methodist Rehab with only a walker for support.

“Quite frankly, he exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Dr. Samuel Grissom, director of Methodist Rehab’s spinal cord injury program.

“My initial thought was he would be in a wheelchair from now on,” said Shannon Moffett, a nurse practitioner for Methodist Rehab’s spinal cord injury program. “But every day something new came back and he always had a good attitude. He told me the first day that he was going to walk out of here.”

Dr. Grissom said McNair suffered an “incomplete” spinal cord injury, meaning he had the potential to regain movement below the injury site. But such a recovery was by no means a given, especially for a 58-year-old.

“Older people with spinal cord injuries don’t tend to do as well as younger people,” Dr. Grissom said. “This is partly due to the adage that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” But McNair had several factors in his favor. “Besides being willing and able to try anything we asked him to, being physically fit and trim certainly worked to his advantage,” Dr. Grissom said.

McNair also benefited from the experience of a medical team that specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. By the time he finished therapy at Methodist Rehab’s outpatient clinic in Flowood, he was walking with a cane and was well enough to drive again.

McNair says he’s grateful for his excellent medical care, and all the family, friends and church members who rallied to his side. But he says credit for his remarkable recovery belongs to another source.

“It’s God,” he said. “When I got to Methodist Rehab, Shannon and Dr. Grissom said they were almost 100 percent certain I would never walk. But I said: You must not know who I know.

“When I started learning about what happened to me, one of the first things I realized is how God had intervened in so many ways. Having a doctor right there on the scene — that doesn’t happen that often. I should have been killed.”