Deborah J. Hjeltnes

March 18, 2003. It was the darkest day of my life. I was at work when the call came with the news that Erik, my 23-year-old son, had been seriously injured in an accident and was at a hospital in Cancun. I immediately dialed a number in Mexico to speak with a doctor. Yes, Erik had been badly hurt when he dove off a dock and hit a sand bar. The word paralysis was used, then quadriplegic.

Could the doctor operate on him immediately to stabilize his neck? The biggest nightmare of my life had just begun. The shock and disbelief were unbearable, but Erik’s father, Knut, and I had to move fast. We arranged for Erik to return to the U.S. immediately for an operation. He was airlifted by private plane and arrived at Mount Sinai Hospital the next morning.

Erik was operated on at Mount Sinai by neurosurgeon Dr. Art Jenkins, who replaced Erik’s crushed C-7 vertebra with a donor bone. Following this surgery, Erik was flown to Israel to participate in a clinical study, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, Chairman & Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Mount Sinai. Six million macrophage cells were injected into his spinal cord. The spinal cord is not capable of repairing itself, so the macrophages work as a janitorial service that “eats up” the toxic molecules given off when the spinal cord is severely damaged. It is the toxic molecules that prevent the neurons from regrowing. The clinical study is based on the premise that with the toxic molecules out of the way, the macrophage cells can reactivate the neurons to grow and reconnect. We are hoping that the results will be positive for Erik.

Erik returned to Mount Sinai and the direct care of Dr. Adam Stein and his excellent staff. The entire team in the Rehabilitation Unit gave Erik great medical care, and I believe they have played a major role in his recovery.

Erik remains determined to live his life as before. He is realistic and has tremendous strength and an unconquerable spirit. I believe that it is this determination, along with an ability to overcome physical and emotional obstacles, which makes a crucial difference in recovery. It is feeling the pain, but going forward anyway. I have gained strength from Erik. He is handling this life-shattering disappointment by focusing on the present and what he has now, despite his discomfort and fears. Erik is my hero and I am proud of him.

There were many angels who have crossed our paths on this journey. We have been surrounded by love and support. One of my angels is Fran Brown of The Alan T Brown Foundation, who first called me a week after the accident. I told her Erik’s story and we cried together. Nobody can truly understand unless they have lived through this experience—a parent’s worst nightmare. I cannot imagine what it would have been like if I did not have Fran to hold me up when I thought I would fall through the cracks. A great humanitarian once said, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.” Fran not only gives her care, but her heart as well.

Like my son, I will face this tragedy head on. Life certainly does turn on a dime, but that same coin can flip back to the other side as well and be for the good. All things that happen, happen for the good.

Deborah J. Hjeltnes