For years, Dr. Matthew Wetschler had surfed the waters and strong currents off Ocean Beach in San Francisco.
But just eight days before Thanksgiving, while surfing at the same beach, he was pushed down by a wave. In an instant, the water’s crushing force had slammed his body, head first, into a shallow part of the ocean floor. His neck was broken.
By the time he was pulled from the ocean, Wetschler had no pulse.
Yet in a series of what he and many others would call miracles, the two people on the beach that day who found him had medical training. One was a doctor, and together they performed CPR on Wetschler, and revived him.
Rushed to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital for emergency surgery, his good fortune continued after he became the first person in the U.S. to benefit from new guidelines for treating individuals with a traumatic spinal cord injury.
The innovative protocols — developed by a team including Dr. Geoffrey Manley, chief of neurosurgery at Zuckerberg — include advanced MRI imaging and neuromonitoring, focused on maintaining sufficient blood flow within the spinal cord.
“This case speaks to the outstanding clinical care at ZSFG and how we are leveraging our research to pioneer new tools and treatments for spinal cord injury,” Manley said in a statement.
By Thanksgiving Day, Wetschler began rehabilitation at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s spinal cord injury rehabilitation unit.
It was a homecoming of sorts. Several months before his injury, Wetschler had started working part time at VMC after completing his emergency medicine residency at Stanford.
Once again, timing was everything: the rehab center recently moved into the just-opened Sobrato Pavilion, equipped with the latest innovations and medical technologies to help many patients recover. Included are a gait and balance system with an overhead track for practicing a wide range of walking and balance-related activities; a wearable, robotic exoskeleton that allows people with certain spinal cord injuries to literally get back on their feet; and a new aquatic therapy pool includes an underwater treadmill.
As a result, Wetschler’s pace of recovery has been uncharacteristically rapid, said VMC spokeswoman Joy Alexiou.
One month from the day of his accident that injured his spinal cord and caused partial paralysis, he celebrated taking his first steps — something that’s happened over days, instead of the usual months, said Dr. James Crew, VMC’s chair of the department of physical medicine and rehab, in a statement.
“While recovery after a spinal cord injury is variable, we are very pleased to see the trajectory of Matthew’s progress,” said Crew.
Wetschler, an artist who will remain at VMC over the holidays, is chronicling his journey as a patient, with the help of an art therapist there.
Along with a strong desire to get back to his life and work — as both a physician and an artist — the doctor attributes his remarkable progress to a number of factors.
“The initial emergency care, experienced and trained staff, and the new treatment protocols at Zuckerberg San Francisco General were critical,” Wetschler said in a statement.
Then, his transfer to the VMC Rehabilitation Center, with access to cutting-edge rehab technology and an a skilled and committed medical staff “has made a difference in my recovery,’’ he said.
“The most heartening experience of my injury has been the rising support of my surrounding community,” added Wetschler. “First, my friends and family, and, second, two institutions that provide world class care.’’