'Medical miracle': Patient with spinal cord injury walks day after surgery

Mere days after surgery, a patient who had a chronic spinal cord injury has made such a miraculous recovery that even the Minnesota neurosurgeon is left stunned.

For the last year and a half, Bernard Hunter has been paraplegic, but his medical journey goes back even further, starting with severe headaches in 2019.

"I caught pneumonia. And then I had two strokes, a couple of seizures, and an aneurysm at work," Hunter said.

Doctors discovered a fungus called Blastomyces, which is found in moist soil such as in wooded areas and near waterways, had entered his lungs. Multiple surgeries later and Hunter was left unable to walk due to an infection in his spine that caused a cyst.

"They had kind of given up on me in Iowa City. They said there was nothing else they could do," said Hunter, a powder coater from Des Moines, Iowa.

Then, he was referred to Minnesota neurosurgeon Dr. Uzma Samadani.

"We have a program for doing spinal cord stimulation for this, but my thought was, maybe he has a chance at recovering more function prior to considering a stimulator. And the way I had hoped to recover his function was to take that cyst out of his spine," she explained.

Dr. Samadani successfully performed a surgery on Friday at North Memorial Hospital, where she made an incision on the front of Hunter’s neck, cut into the layer overlaying the spinal cord, found the cyst and was able to poke holes in it.

What she didn't expect, though, was what happened the next day.

"There was a note in that chart that said that he walked 8 feet with physical therapy. And I thought, ‘OK, there has to be some sort of mistake.’ I went in to see him and I said, ‘Did you really walk 8 feet?’ And he said, ‘Here, let me show you.’ Then, he got up and walked again," Dr. Samadani said.

On Wednesday, five days post-op, Hunter can walk more than 100 feet. He is utterly relieved, as he thinks about all the things he loved that may soon be a possibility again.

"Racing, bicycling, fishing, all that good stuff. Bowling, you name it," Hunter said.

"We've just been through so much, so it means a lot," said Antoinette Hunter, his wife of 18 years.

They’re filled with gratitude toward the medical professional who helped Hunter make these strides.

"I wish I could take full credit, but I have to say this is a category of medical miracle where I don't completely understand why he got so much better," Samadani said. "I no longer believe that there is such a thing as complete spinal cord injury. I feel like every patient has some level of capacity to recover, with perhaps a few exceptions, and it's just a matter of figuring out what will work."

Hunter’s medical journey is proof of that.

"I didn't think I'd be a miracle, not a medical miracle. I'm just glad to be here," he said.

This weekend, the national Unite 2 Fight Paralysis conference will happen in Bloomington. Dr. Samadani will give a talk about how patients from across the United States, Canada and England come to Minnesota have their spinal cord injuries reversed. She credits Minnesota state spinal cord injury funding for her important work.

"These are these are the moments when you're really happy that you've decided to become a neurosurgeon because you can really help someone," she said. "This is a rare case where you really feel like your intervention made a complete difference in this patient's life in a very rapid way."