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Charles Durham, longtime drummer (59 years) and featured singer at the Lincoln Jamboree in Hodgenville, often performs gospel songs at his home church, Pleasant Ridge Separate Baptist.
But when he rose from his seat to sing “Thank God for Kids” at the church’s Christmas program on Dec. 22, he had no indication that in less than 10 minutes he would suffer a very rare spinal aneurysm that would nearly take his life.
“I felt OK when I went up to sing, and even when I first sat back down,” said Durham. “But, a minute or two after I sat down, my back started killing me.”
His wife, Ann, who was seated beside him, noticed his extreme discomfort. She decided to drive him to the emergency room in Elizabethtown, about 25 miles away. Already, her husband had lost the ability to walk and had to be carried to their car by two men from the church.
“When we got just a little ways down the road, he was hurting so bad, I stopped the car and called the ambulance, telling them I would meet them back at the church,” she said.
“I don’t remember what happened from then until I started physical therapy,” Charles said.
His wife, however, remembers the events like a long, intense nightmare.
“When the ambulance got him to E’town, they thought he had a blood clot in his leg, and decided to have him transported by helicopter to Louisville,” she said. “The clouds were too low for the helicopter, though, so they had to take him by ambulance.”
Further tests at Jewish Hospital in Louisville showed he had suffered a rare spinal aneurysm.
“None of the doctors there had treated a person who had had this type of aneurysm, and they told us there were only about six known cases,” Durham’s son, Pat, noted. “They were three to four days in deciding how best to treat Dad.”
As the surgeons considered their options, Dr. Thomas Altstadt, assistant professor of neurological surgery with University of Louisville, discussed with Charles the surgery that he wanted to perform,” said Pat. “He said he couldn’t offer a guarantee, but he thought all the staff there could learn from it.”
Altstadt later explained, “Charlie had an extremely rare aneurysm on the artery of adamkiewicz (the largest artery that feeds the spinal cord) that ruptured, causing a subarachnoid hemorrhage and immediate paraplegia. This condition is so rare that only a few cases have ever been reported in the medical literature.”
The surgeon said the case was very challenging due to the location of the aneurysm (lateral to the thoracic spinal cord).
“We had to place a small clip at the neck of the aneurysm to exclude blood flow to it while preserving flow in the feeding vessel to the spinal cord,” Altstadt said.
The four-hour operation began at 9 p.m. on Jan. 3.
“While it was going on, they constantly monitored Dad, taking six MRIs and three or four CAT scans,” Pat recalled.
Though the surgery was considered a success, spinal fluid and blood started seeping and settling on Charles’ brain. In a second operation, surgeons inserted a tube to drain the blood and leaking spinal fluid from the brain.
“We took it one day at a time, but as the fluid drained from his brain, we noticed remarkable improvement,” said Pat.
Durham was recovering, but slowly. At first, he couldn’t move either leg. Then came slight movement in the toes of his right leg, but the left one, injured by polio when he was a teen, remained paralyzed.
He spent four weeks in the hospital, then four more at Frazier Rehab. His wife of almost 55 years stayed in the room with him at least five nights every week while their daughter, Pam Miller, and Pat remained with the patient when Ann returned to their home near Buffalo to recoup and resupply.
Both Charles’ legs gradually responded to physical therapy designed specifically for people suffering spinal cord injuries.
“I think the treadmill, where they fitted me with a special harness so my legs would walk, helped me the most,” Durham recalled. “The people there in physical therapy were wonderful. I called the girls who helped me, ‘Charlie’s Angels.’”
For several weeks after returning home, Ann or another family member drove Durham to Frazier each weekday for therapy. He is still continuing physical therapy in Hodgenville.
He has progressed from wheelchair to walker to cane and has also returned to the Jamboree, playing the drums for the three-hour show each Saturday night.
“He has made an excellent recovery and I am absolutely thrilled that he is back playing the drums,” Altstadt stated.
The family agrees that his improvement is miraculous.
“If God wasn’t in this, he wouldn’t be here,” said Ann.