Cartoon character of mad scientist with bulging eyes

Year After Year

Humor Five Years

This year, while visiting the family in Florida for my annual holiday vacation, I ventured over to The Miami Project to get an evaluation and see if there was anything new in the world of spinal cord injury (SCI) research. The Miami Project began in 1985 when Marc, the son of Miami Dolphin’s player Nick Buoniconti, tragically broke his neck in a high school football game. As a result, a national research center for spinal cord injuries was set up with a group of dedicated scientists — the goal being to accelerate the translation of new laboratory findings to clinical studies involving humans.

In 1979, I was involved in a car accident in which I broke my neck and became paralyzed. One of the main things that helped me get through this difficult period was the hope that promising SCI cures were on the horizon. For as long as I can remember, a cure was always just five years away. Somehow, five became the magical number. After five years I’d revisit the new research out there to see if anything had progressed. Rats, rats, rats! It was always about the rats. Things were slowly progressing, but as usual, somewhere within the rat trial experimental article were the words “we are only about five years away from a major breakthrough in spinal cord research.” I wasn’t so bothered that things seemed to be taking longer than originally stated, but I just wish they would mix it up a little and at least change the time frame to a less popular number like… 4.8 years. I’ve never trusted round numbers.

It’s hard to believe that rats are the only dumb creatures in the animal kingdom to volunteer for this stuff. Why can’t the monkeys step up? Monkeys could speed up the research process, especially since their DNA is the closest to a human being’s. Believe me, I know. I’ve been out drinking with my friends and they can be some wild chimps. It’s a slow frustrating process where, after several years of rat trials, the next stage always seems to be… bigger rats. I think the rats have served their time. It’s long overdue to leap forward and bring in the gophers.

Decades ago, right after my injury, I remember sitting in the hospital room across from one of the country’s top neurosurgeons and asking him if we were close to a cure. I have never forgotten his words, without blinking, he calmly stated, “Not in my lifetime, maybe yours.” I didn’t like his candor, but I was thankful he was old. So far, he has been right. He is dead now. One thing I did take from the brief disheartening exchange was how intricate and complex the spinal cord really is. It’s definitely harder to solve than that Rubik’s Cube thingy.

My hope has always remained high and I am encouraged by the new research that is going on in the scientific community. There are very promising things on the horizon and it now seems more of a question of when, rather than if. Every few months, I see new research of something promising and my excitement level rises. Then, I never hear about it again. I can’t imagine that Facebook would lie to me.

Would I miss my old life in a wheelchair? I guess I would miss the parking spots, the racquet ball court sized bathroom stalls and the joy of running over people’s toes. But, I’m willing to give up all that up to get back to my old self. After all, I think it’s long past due that I learn to stand on my own two feet.

So, at the Miami Project I sat across from the internationally recognized spinal cord expert, Dr. Green, who has been around for a while and on the forefront of spinal cord injury research. If anyone out there would know what’s going on in the world of research, this cat would. We looked at my MRI on the computer screen, and there I saw a small blot, in the middle of my spinal column, that had been the thorn in my side and had sentenced me to a wheelchair for the last thirty years or so. ...To read the full article, login or become a member --- it's free!

by Jeff Charlebois

Read more articles from the Ray Romano Issue.