NEIL CONAN, host:
A little over three months ago, Buffalo's tight end Kevin Everett raced downfield on a routine play, a kick-off. As he crouched to make the tackle, the ball carrier lowered his head, helmets collided. Everett fell to the ground and lay motionless on the turf. Tens of thousands of fans walked in - watched in shocked silence, and players from both teams gathered in a prayer circle as an ambulance took him off the field.
Although rare, football has seen these kinds of injuries before - spinal cord injuries that can leave a young man paralyzed for life. But with intensive intervention, controversial treatment methods and an intense will and hard work, Kevin Everett is walking again.
Joining us now from his office in Hartford, Connecticut is Tim Layden, senior sportswriter for Sports Illustrated. He wrote a cover story on Kevin Everett in S.I.'s latest issue. And, Tim, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. TIM LAYDEN (Senior Sportswriter, Sports Illustrated): My pleasure.
CONAN: And this has been a remarkable story. A lot of people thought that Kevin Everett would never walk again.
Mr. LAYDEN: You know, certainly, people who are watching, and many people who watch the NFL as a ritual on Sunday afternoons and certainly people who watched that game live or who saw it replayed many, many times that evening and over the ensuing days and saw Kevin, his body go limp after he made contact with Domenik Hixon of the Denver Broncos thought only that the worse possible outcome could ensue.
CONAN: And, indeed, what turned out to be central to this story was the fact that the Buffalo Bills had on their sideline a doctor who specializes in this sort of thing.
Mr. LAYDEN: Really, that and the fact that the Buffalo Bills more than probably any other team in the NFL have prepared and rehearsed for just this type of injury. Not only did they have a spine surgeon, Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, on the sideline, but they have a 12-person team that practiced only nine days before this game exactly how they would behave in the event of a spinal cord injury on the field. And all of those factors combined to allow the Bills to treat Kevin Everett with a tremendous expediency on the day of the injury. He was in an ambulance in 13 minutes, and he was in the hospital in 22 minutes after that. And he was in surgery in an hour and a half…
Mr. LAYDEN: …the time that he had a collision on the field.
CONAN: And because of the preparation in the ambulance, they had special cooling fluids that Dr. Cappuccino had decided in advance in the event of this, I may try this, a controversial treatment.
Mr. LAYDEN: Correct. They had ice saline solution, basically a saline solution in one of the cooler that you might use to take to the beach for your orange juice or whatever you bring to the beach. But they had that on ice in the ambulance and they immediately started I.V. treatments with Kevin in the ambulance to begin cooling his body. And then they also used a (unintelligible) to cool his body after the surgery was done to realign and decompress the fracture in his spinal cord.
CONAN: And his spinal cord, we should emphasize, was not severed. It was severely damaged, but not severed, and there were important indications of that. Also, Kevin Everett received tremendous treatment all the way down the line from other doctors at the hospital, from the technicians in the ambulance, from the nurses who worked with him.
But this controversial treatment - putting him into basically hypothermia - well, this has caused a lot of controversy.
Mr. LAYDEN: It really has because it's something that has been - essentially what they did, not only the ice saline in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, which cools the body slightly, but certainly not to a level that would qualify as hypothermia.
After his surgery by a few hours, he was put into a state where his body was reduced to a temperature of about ninety-one-and-a-half degrees. And the theory is that this reduces the chance of swelling and other methods that the body uses to respond to pain and injury, which do not aid in the healing of a spinal cord injury.
Doctors have experimented with or looked at or hypothesized on the effect of hypothermia in many areas for more than two decades. There has never been a study, there has never been clinical trials really establishing how hypothermia might affect a patient with a catastrophic spinal cord injury.
Kevin Everett was one of the first to undergo this type of treatment. He is doing well, but surgeons, including Dr. Cappuccino, are very careful to point out that we don't really know what the effect of hypothermia was in his case. We know he is doing better, but he received terrific care across a number of platforms, one of which was modest hypothermia.
CONAN: We're talking with Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated about the case of Kevin Everett.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wanted to get back to Dr. Cappuccino's decision. If this didn't work, he exposed himself to tremendous liability. In your story, though, he said, I was thinking of my son who's about the same age as this football player. And if he were lying there, he would have told me, you know, dad, don't leave me like this.
Mr. LAYDEN: It's a very human story. And I've had a lot of people say to me over the last week or so, since this story came out, that we, as a culture, tend to think of doctors as detached, sort of unfeeling people, who you often have to wait two hours to see when you go in for a routine physical or when you take your child to the pediatrician, and that's unfortunate.
In this case, Dr. Cappuccino talked very openly about how he felt emotionally and intellectually and in every other way while he took himself through Kevin Everett's treatment. And in a way that his emotions and his thought process, I thought, really were a more compelling part of the story than the outcome, which we really don't know how that was achieved because people's spinal cord injuries recover in many ways and to many degrees.
But Dr. Cappuccino was very pointed in saying that, you know, we live in a very litigious society where doctors pay many, many thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for malpractice insurance. And he had to make a decision, you know, that could have blown up in his face, and he made it anyway.
CONAN: We certainly can't overlook Kevin Everett, his part in this story, and not just as victim, a man who's worked tremendously hard to get, literally, back on his feet.
Mr. LAYDEN: Not only has he worked hard, but he's taken a remarkable attitude about it. I met him in Houston last weekend. First of all, I was shocked to the point of feeling emotional when he simply walked into the room and shook my hand. At that point, I didn't know whether I was going to meet and interview a subject in a wheelchair or with a walker. And then he proceeded to sit down at the kitchen table in his house and explained to me that this is something that happened, but I have to accept it and move on.
And, really, in the three months since it's happened, he said he's gained a greater appreciation for the things that he does have - for his fiancée, Wiande Moore, for his three little sisters, for his mom, for all the fans of the Bills. And, really, it's one thing to say those things - and athletes often talk in platitudes and clichés - but it's another thing to say it after what he's been through. And it really is - it was a bracing interaction for me.
CONAN: And how much better is he going to get? You describe a man who can well walk about a football length's - football field's length before having some balance problems.
Mr. LAYDEN: You know, we know that - first of all, you know, I'm not a physician obviously. My reporting has told me that the recovery and growth of spinal cord patients is a wide gray area. People make tremendous progress and then stop. People keep making progress. It's very hard to say. He's been three months out. He's probably closer to the end of what he's going to achieve in the beginning.
But he's achieved so much that even if he can double what he's got, it would be quite remarkable. He can walk; he can use his upper body to some extent. His injury tends to leave the upper body more damaged than the legs, which is counter intuitive, but in his case, that's the way it works. His hands are getting better each day through little games that he plays. And he has a chance - as the doctor said to me, we know he's never going to have ramps in his house. We know that no one's ever going to have to take care of Kevin Everett. And that alone is so gratifying and heartwarming that, really, almost anything else is a bonus.
CONAN: Tim Layden wrote the cover story for Sports Illustrated on the injury to the treatment of and recovery of Kevin Everett. And Tim Layden, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. LAYDEN: You're welcome.
CONAN: Tim Layden joined us on the phone from his office in Hartford, Connecticut.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.