Historic nerve graft surgery saves woman's life, dreams

jflechas@MiamiHerald.comNovember 11, 2013 

The doctors had to save Danielle Press' life before worrying about her leg.

She arrived at Jackson Memorial Hospital after losing lots of blood after a Sept. 14 boating accident in which a propeller sliced her leg, cutting her sciatic nerve -- which is the body's largest and controls the majority of movement and sensation in the legs.

Besides coming close to death, the 26-year-old with dreams of traveling the world faced never regaining feeling and movement in her left leg. Nerve damage can also often lead to paralysis.

"It's kind of a blur," she later said. "I don't really have much memory of the accident."

Weeks later, University of Miami and Jackson doctors performed a first-of-its-kind procedure that could break ground in the area of nerve repair.

Officials announced at a recent news conference they had used Press' own nerves and Schwann cells, which are crucial to nerve function, in performing a nerve graft to repair a nearly 3-inch tear in her sciatic nerve.

The experimental surgery involved harvesting some of Press' Schwann cells and growing more in a laboratory. Researchers then grafted the cells to the damaged portion of the nerve.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Allan

Levi had to get Food and Drug Administration approval for the unique procedure.

When developing this approach, Levi pointed to research done by the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a part of UM's Miller School of Medicine, which has used a patient's own Schwann cells to treat spinal injuries.

Levi said two patients have received these cells for spinal injuries, but the technique had never been used to repair a peripheral nerve like a sciatic nerve. He and his team believe that the procedure could maximize nerve regeneration and restoration of function.

"Danielle is the first -- the pioneer -- when it comes to a peripheral nerve," he said. "This has never been done before. Ever."

Levi said years of therapy remain and time will tell if the procedure will help Press regain leg function.

"The next steps will be over months and years as those nerves grow back down her leg to see how much recovery she gets," he said.

Press' father Charles, Key Biscayne's police chief, told reporters Levi was convincing in his pitch, and Danielle was eager to try it.

"Danielle felt very strongly that if she can be the one that can alter the course for others, then she was willing to do that," he said.

Danielle was joined after the surgery by her family and boyfriend with whom she had plans to travel to Taiwan to teach English two weeks before the accident. The two met in South Korea, where each had been teaching English.

Even after their plans changed, she still saw an opportunity to make a difference.

"Just to have a chance to do something extraordinary or be part of something bigger than myself was a great feeling," she said.

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