Paralysed fighter rises to the challenge

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

There has been a rare but continuing string of catastrophic injuries caused by executing a takedown while in a guillotine.

in 2009 Zach Kirk shot for a double leg in the main event of an amateur show, and got caught in a guiillotine. When the fight hit the ground, Kirk’s fifth cervical vertebra shattered, bone fragments ground into his spinal cord, and his muscles went limp forever.

In 2010 Braulio Estima was temporarily paralysed while shooting for a single leg.

In early 2010 Franco Lescano was training at Argentina’s Tiger Gym for his MMA debut when he attempted a takedown while caught in a guillotine. The resulting injury left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he died 21 days later.

Fighter Devin Johnson, now 23, suffered a spinal cord injury during practice May 14, 2012 at Urijah Faber’s Sacramento gym, Ultimate Fitness. He was training for his final amateur fight before turning pro. He will never fight in the cage again, but as detailed below, he has a fight – to regain as much function as he can.

The rate of catastrophic injury rate for MMA is less than that for a number of physical activities, including cheerleading. However, catastrophic injury is possible, and with now multiple cases of permanent paralysis and a death resulting from a takedown while in a standing guillotine, trainers and athletes need to heighten their awareness.

Although MMA is regulated, the government cannot be relied on to prevent injury in our sport. It is up to the fighters, trainers, referees, and officials to develop on awareness that some aspects of the sport are exceptionally dangerous, and that catastrophic injury has resulted in the past, and in all likelihood will do so in future.

Driving into a double with the head trapped in a Guillotine can cause paralysis and even death.

The Sacramento Bee’s Melody Gutierrez chronicles Johnson’s last year living as a quadriplegic – his triumphs, his struggles, and what he’s learned.

After 10 on a recent morning, Devin Johnson faced his first hurdle of the day – getting out of bed.

He was still on his back as marijuana smoke filled his small apartment off Madison Avenue in Sacramento. He waited for the medicinal pot to calm the “jumps” in his atrophied legs.

The violent spasms, caused by an injury to his spinal cord, subsided minutes later. Johnson’s caregiver, Jordan Pankey, began to dress his longtime friend, pulling off his pajama pants, putting on dark denim jeans and bright-white socks.

The two worked in silent tandem.

He’s unable to walk but has recovered limited use of his trunk, arms and hands.

Looking at the motorized wheelchair next to his bed, he waved off Pankey, who instinctively had moved to help him.

“I’m going to do it,” Johnson said.

Pankey swept Johnson’s legs to the side of the bed. Johnson grabbed the wheelchair’s arm and inched up. After nearly 10 minutes of effort, he transferred from bed to wheelchair, breathing heavily, sweat beading his hairline.

He smiled triumphantly before looking down.

“Uh, I’m dizzy,” he said, as he worked to compose himself.

A year ago, such a simple task wouldn’t have been worth a Facebook post and the ensuing congratulatory comments. But that was before the ambulance, the surgery and the rehabilitation center.

Anger sometimes gets the best of him and he wants to punch God for putting him through this. Those sentiments are mostly expressed on Twitter, where Johnson’s tweets vary from uplifting to emotionally raw and highly offensive.

In person, however, Johnson steers the conversation away from the dark thoughts, focusing instead on his goal of becoming a role model for people overcoming traumatic injuries.

“There are a lot of things to be depressed about, but that just makes another depressed person if you show it,” he said. “I’m good at not showing it. There is no point in showing it.”

Johnson has lost more than 30 pounds since the accident. He said he has come to terms with his new limits.

“I can move,” he said. “That’s the good thing. I know people who can’t move anything below their neck. They would be thankful to have what I have.”

Early on, his recovery defied doctors’ expectations. Partial function and feeling had quickly returned to his extremities. That led him to believe his recovery would continue at the same pace. He had pledged to walk again and talked of a possible return to fighting.

Now, he’s accepted that he won’t make good on that. And he says it’s OK.

Quadriplegics with spinal cord injuries like Johnson’s usually see most of their physical improvements within the first year of recovery, according to experts.

Johnson’s limited leg movement elicits both grief and joy. He can stand with assistance, but his knees, calves and feet are unpredictable and sometimes unresponsive.

“I miss being more physical, of course,” he said. “A lot of my friends from rehab, I don’t know if they are happy with their lives, but I am. I’m living good. I’m alive.”

Johnson has been looking into careers suitable for someone in a wheelchair. In spring, he enrolled in classes at American River College.

He said he doesn’t intend to live on his disability income – $850 a month.

Johnson has set his sights on an accounting degree with the goal of a job preparing taxes. He said he likes numbers.

“They are right or wrong,” he explained. “You don’t have opinions with numbers.”

He’s dating. Johnson said the only awkwardness is when he meets someone through social media or texting and he wonders if she knows he can’t walk. When he meets them, he wonders if they know he’s capable of physical intimacy.

“That’s not the first thing they ask,” he said. “I’m like, yeah, duh. …”When girls bring it up, I say ‘Obviously, I’m not standing up, but not everything involves standing up.’ “

What will he do a year from now?

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I want to be able to use a walker. I think that’s still possible.”

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