Hoping for a better grasp of her world Wanda Hannahs will travel to Beijing, China next month to undergo surgery that hopefully will give her the ability to grasp objects with her left hand. A traffic accident nearly six years ago has left her paralyzed from the shoulders down. by David Lias Wanda Hannahs wants to get a better grip on things – even if it means going halfway around the world.
The Vermillion woman is planning to travel to Beijing, China next month to undergo experimental surgery that, hopefully, will increase the range of motion in her left hand and arm.
It's the only limb she's been able to move since a tragic traffic accident almost six years ago that nearly took her life.
Hannahs, her daughter, Heather Swenson, and Swenson's friend, Adam Carlson, will fly to China on July 11.
Hannahs will be under the care of Dr. Hongyun Huang, a neurosurgeon at Beijing's Chaoyong Hospital.
The doctor will operate on her spine, transplanting olfactory ensheathing glia (OEG) cells into her spinal column.
If all goes as planned, Hannahs will gain motion in her left hand and arm.
Today, with only that arm, she barely has the strength or range of motion to move the lever that controls her wheelchair.
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She must rely on others for practically everything. She can't grasp a spoon or fork to feed herself. She can touch only a portion of her face.
Her legs have remained motionless since the accident. This surgery promises no miracles. She'll likely never be able to move her legs and abandon her wheelchair.
"I've always said that I could live in this wheelchair for the rest of my life," Hannahs said. "All I want is just a little bit of function in my hand."
The blink of an eye
It's taken years of medical care and ongoing physical therapy sessions for Hannahs to achieve a rather limited grasp on her world.
That world changed in a blink of an eye as the Hannahs family began a vacation trip Sept. 11, 1998.
Hannahs was driving the family's pickup on Interstate 29, and towing a camper that she and her, husband, Tim, had purchased just two weeks earlier. Passengers in the pickup were their daughter, Dana, and the family dog.
Tim was following her on his motorcycle.
"Nobody had bothered to check the air pressure," Hannahs said. That caused the tire to roll improperly on its rim.
Tim Hannahs watched in horror as a tire on the camper blew out, causing it to fishtail out of control when his wife was attempting to pass a semi-trailer.
The pickup rolled into the median between the north and southbound lanes of Interstate 29 approximately 2 1/2 miles south of the Alcester/Wakonda exit. Dana, age 7 at the time, and their dog were tossed into the back of the pickup. Dana received minor injuries, and was treated and released at the local hospital.
Hannahs was thrown through the front windshield of the pickup.
"I was northbound on I-29, and landed on the dotted line of the southbound lane," she said. "I hit the steering wheel with my chin, and I actually broke my neck before I exited the vehicle."
She knows she may easily be admonished by some people for not wearing her seat belt that day. Attorneys who conducted a scientific study of the accident, however, determined that had Hannahs buckled up, she would have died in the crash.
"The steering wheel came clear back into the seat, and the pickup was upside down."
Hannahs was airlifted to Marian Hospital in Sioux City, IA. Three days after the accident, surgery was performed.
Doctors fused vertebrae high in Hannahs' back. Lower in her back, a vertebrae was shifted by the accident injury, and her spinal cord is stretched around it.
The accident didn't sever her spinal cord.
"But that stretch hampers a lot of her function," said Janine Dooley, her caregiver.
In December, 1998, Hannahs was flown to Craig Hospital in Denver, CO. The facility specializes in rehabilitating people suffering from spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
"If I never went to Craig Hospital, I wouldn't be at the function I am now," she said.
Hannahs returned home on Feb. 11, 1999. She's faced a life filled with limitations since.
She's able to drive her wheelchair with a joystick on her wheelchair, thanks, in part, to the continued therapy she receives in Vermillion.
"Now that I'm home, I get therapy three times a week at Sioux Valley Vermillion Hospital," Hannahs said. "My right arm is very limited. The therapy is to maintain my range of motion."
Her pending surgery in China isn't compelled by an attempt to lengthen Hannahs' life span. Today's medical advances mean Hannahs likely will live just as long as people who are not confined to a wheelchair.
The surgery in China won't change the three hours of feeding and personal hygiene care Dooley provides Hannahs each morning.
It won't mean that Hannahs will ever be able to stop her physical therapy sessions.
She will continue to rely on the generous help of her husband, daughters, her sister and Janine.
None of that, however, has deterred her desire to undergo surgery in China.
"He (Dr. Huang) has told us that he has found that at least two levels of function will probably return," Hannahs said. "I'm hoping that will mean improvements to my hands for me."
Hannahs learned about the procedure offered in China from a Yankton man who suffered a spinal injury nearly 30 years ago.
"He said he can feel some sensations that he wasn't able to feel before," Hannahs said. "I'm hoping that since I've only been injured 5 1/2 years and I've had therapy since day one the surgery will bring some movement back, because I do have sensation in parts of my arms."
Doctors will make small incisions in Hannahs' back, and remove the sheath that covers her spinal cord. They will then inject 500,000 OEG cells into her spine.
"They are actually the only cells that regenerate in adults," Dooley said.
The cells are taken from human embryos. The procedure is allowed in China, but banned in the United States.
President Bush signed an executive order in August 2001, limiting federal research funding for stem cell research to 78 embryonic stem cell lines then in existence.
Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become a wide variety of specialized cell types.
Stem cells can be taken from days-old human embryos and then grown in a laboratory into lines or colonies. Embryos are destroyed when the cells are extracted, a process opposed by some people who link it to abortion.
"The stem cell research restrictions here make it hard for scientists to do a lot of that testing," Dooley said, "where elsewhere they don't have those restrictions."
Hannahs is fully aware of the risks involved in the surgery.
"It's scary, but to be able to grasp, to grab a pencil, will be worth it," Hannahs said. "I've always said that I could live in this wheelchair for the rest of my life if I could just get one hand to work.
Her first week in China will be filled with medical tests. The surgery will take sometime during her second week in Beijing.
"I will have to be immobile in bed for three days, and after that, you are free to get up," she said.
She will remain hospitalized for three weeks after the surgery, and return to Vermillion, if all goes as planned, Aug. 10.
"Right now, I rely on somebody to feed me, scratch my head if I have an itch, just the simplest things," she said. "It's a scary thought going to a foreign country, but at the same time, I'm excited."