Down, But Not Out
Cervical spine injuries hit home, affecting two MSU student-athletes; recoveries continue
To see a video interview with Branden Carney, click here.
Nov. 3, 2011, began as an average day for Branden Carney. He climbed out of bed, headed to Munn Ice Arena, chatted with teammates and took the ice for hockey practice.
It was a normal routine for the then-freshman defenseman, but a routine he shortly would say goodbye to.
Climbing out of bed would be a struggle, casually hanging out would be put on the back burner and practicing for an MSU hockey game would never happen again.
During practice that day, a drill turned into a head-first fall into the dashboards.
It was in that instant Carney experienced a career-ending neck injury.
“I don’t really remember much,” he said of the moments following the fall. “One instant I was laying on the ice, and the next instant I was in a hospital bed surrounded by people.”
Carney fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae, which control roughly 50 percent of neck movement, said Chief of Neurological Surgery Charles Bill at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital and an MSU athletic department affiliate.
The cervical spine is a part of the spinal cord, beginning in the skull and extending through seven vertebrae — C1 through C7 — into the upper back.
Though not a common concern, injuries to the cervical spine are a danger all athletes face, regardless of the sport.
“That’s a very important part of the spine, and we’re very concerned about injuries in that area, especially if it leads to the requirement for a fusion,” Bill said. “In that case, when you fuse that, you lose a significant amount of mobility for the rest of your life.”
Although most cervical spine injuries occur as a result of car crashes, Erik Swartz, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, focuses his research on managing cervical spine injuries in athletics.
Given the nature of athletics, contact sports open the door for spinal injuries. Cervical spine injuries have increased steadily in hockey since the game’s inception, but data following rule changes show there are less cases of quadriplegia, according to Edward C. Benzel’s “Spine Surgery: Techniques, Complication, Avoidance, and Management.”
Results of damage to the spine vary based on the injury’s details and location on the spine.
But those with cervical spine accidents run the risk of paralysis or, in extreme cases, death.
Swartz said although these types of injuries don’t occur as much as the common sports injuries — ankle and knee sprains, fractures, contusions — cervical spine incidents always are a risk.
And while concussions have made headlines lately, he pointed out that some cervical spine injuries can be more dangerous than a properly-handled concussion.
“They both can be catastrophic, so it just depends on the management of it,” he said. “The serious, catastrophic spine injury that happens on the field may have immediate neurological involvement that will never be recovered. A concussion, on the other hand, as long as it’s identified and managed, can have complete resolution.”
Road to recovery
Russ Carney was at volleyball practice getting ready to head to Iowa the night of Nov. 3, 2011, when he got a call from the MSU athletic department.
He was told his son, Branden Carney, had suffered an injury and he needed to get to Munn Ice Arena.
When Russ Carney, also the MSU volleyball associate head coach, arrived at the rink, his son was being put in an ambulance, and Russ Carney quickly realized the severity of the accident.
When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, Bill said they performed a CAT scan and an MRI to assess the damage.
Because there was no damage to Branden Carney’s ligaments, he was eligible to use a halo to repair the fracture.
“We actually fix a ring with four pins to the skull,” Bill said. “Then we attach a jacket, and with the use of X-rays, are able to actually manipulate his head with X-ray guidance to a position where we can see that I had all the bones lined up perfectly.”
For the next three months, Carney’s head was fixed in the same position while his C1 and C2 healed themselves.
“The first three months when I couldn’t really do much, it was kind of like, ‘Wow, I take the little things for granted all the time,’” he said. “Just (getting) up on my own for the first month was such a hassle that waking up everyday feels great — just to know I can still do that, get out of bed every morning.”
Brandon Carney continued to work with Bill, along with MSU hockey head physician Robert Norris and athletic trainer Dave Carrier toward a successful recovery.
But his near-perfect comeback came to a halt when Bill realized his spinal anatomy had significant change following the injury.
He advised the hockey player to stay away from the sport because of possible repercussions if a second injury were to occur.
Branden Carney made the decision to retire from the game, but he will live a normal life with full mobility.
“It puts things in perspective,” Russ Carney said. “It is disheartening that he can’t play for the Spartans anymore, but also it’s nice to know that if things keep going the way they are, he’s going to lead a normal life and be able to walk.”
A life altered
Branden Carney’s results are fortunate. He thinks he’s blessed, his father agrees, and his doctor called certain aspects of his story “lucky.”
But two years ago, a cervical spine tragedy struck a different MSU athlete whose injury was far from lucky.
“It was Dec. 29, 2010,” Kathryn Mahoney recalled when asked about her accident, as if the date was etched permanently in her memory.
It was days away from the start of her senior season with MSU gymnastics, and she was practicing vault when her hands hit the vault table and “something didn’t feel right.”
Mahoney said she bailed on the vault, but when she landed on her chest, everything started tingling and burning.
Her C6 vertebra was fractured, and a surgery was required to fuse the C5 through C7 vertebrae.
Since that day, Mahoney has been paralyzed from the chest down, with movement in her arms but no finger function.
Benzel’s book states cervical spine injuries are relatively common in gymnastics, and it is the leading cause of quadriplegia in women’s sports.
“She’s an amazingly strong individual, both physically and mentally,” MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages said. “It’s a difficult life, but she has done the best with what she has, and that’s how she kind of took it. The attitude is that, ‘This is what I’ve got, and now I’ve got to get on with my life.’”
And Mahoney didn’t waste any time altering her life plan.
She returned to MSU to pursue a chemical engineering degree after spending three months in an inpatient rehab facility, and she plans on graduating in May.
She is fairly independent, but needs help in the mornings.
One of the hardest things, she said, is requiring assistance to simply get out of bed.
“It’s still something that I don’t know if you ever really get used to,” she said. “But it’s just part of the situation.”
She maintains the mind-set that, with the direction research is heading, there is a possibility of her gaining back mobility.
She continues to attend rehab regularly, both in East Lansing and back home in Western Springs, Ill.
This past summer, Mahoney put her gymnast strength to use and, with the help of braces and a walker, was able to use her upper body to walk.
Learning to walk, using a stove — it’s little improvements such as those that keep Mahoney moving.
“(At) the end of the day, you have to realize you can’t be negative about it because look how much I’ve gotten back,” Mahoney said.
“I’ve gotten to come back to school, and I have such great support from my family and friends. You never know what’s going to happen in the future.”