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Miracle teen defying the odds after paralyzing polar plunge injury

Michael Wright (pictured right) walking alongside his neurosurgeon, Dr. Edwin Chang after a freak accident almost left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Michael Wright (pictured right) walking alongside his neurosurgeon, Dr. Edwin Chang after a freak accident almost left him paralyzed from the neck down.

High school senior excited to walk at graduation just months after broken neck

STATEN ISLAND, NY —

His doctors say he’s a miracle. After severely fracturing two vertebrae in his neck last December during the Staten Island Polar Bear Plunge, they feared 17-year-old Michael Wright would never walk again.

Just four months after that horrific day, Wright is walking and readying to cross the stage at his high school graduation in June.

But before his ceremonial walk, Wright walked the halls where his miraculous recovery started at Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH). He reunited with the fast-acting neurosurgery team that started him on his road to recovery.

As with so many medical emergencies, speed is the key.

Beach day turns tragic

This was the case on December 2, 2018, when Wright’s injury occurred in the South Beach section of Staten Island.

Within minutes, Michael was in an ambulance on a short trip to SIUH’s Emergency and Trauma Center, where a CAT scan revealed two fractured cervical spine vertebrae (C6 and C7) that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

“Some of the vertebrae were crushed so badly that some of the bone fragment had gone into the spinal canal,” said Edwin Chang, MD, the hospital’s chief of neurosurgery. “It was an emotional day, for a young person, we didn’t know what the future would hold for him,” he went on to say.

Dr. Chang, performed lumbar fusion to relieve pressure on Wright’s spine. The fractured segments of his spine were placed in a titanium cage, fused with rods and screws to heal.

After surgery, signs of hope

With a slim window for recovery, Dr. Chang and the surgical team saw hopeful signs immediately.

“In the recovery room, Michael was able to move a toe; we were encouraged by that. By the time he left the hospital, he was able to move muscles in his legs,” Dr. Chang recalled.

Just four months after surgery and extensive physical therapy, Michael is walking, and defying the odds.

“With this type of injury, there’s typically a 1 percent chance in recovery,” Dr. Chang said. “Time was on his side.”

Though Dr. Chang credits the speed of getting the teen to surgery as part of this success, he stressed Michael’s determination to be mobile as a major factor.

Now ready to walk the graduation stage with his friends, Wright’s grateful for every step forward.

"I feel great ... like nothing has changed, I got back up on my horse,'' he said. “One big motivation I’ve had was returning to school and spending the rest of my senior year with my friends.”

"When you hear ‘1 percent,' it gives me a lot of faith that I’m here for a reason,'' he said. "I’m going to use this experience to help others who are less fortunate than me with spinal cord injuries.''

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