You tried to save a chicken?
Betsy says, "Yes, there is a very strong government warning about U.S. citizens visiting Cuba, but it was Mike's boyhood home, and the trip was an important one to us. So we went and were extremely glad we did. We'd been there about a week and decided to go exploring. It had been raining and we were driving through a small town. Suddenly, Mike saw a chicken run into the road and swerved the car to avoid hitting it. The car slid across the wet road, fell down a muddy embankment and flipped over, landing on the roof.
"We were all upside down, I, Toni (Mike's sister) and the two friends who were traveling with us. We were covered with mud, sore and dazed, but basically okay. Mike was not. He wasn't moving. He knew he was paralyzed because he could not move his hands to shut off the car engine. His knees were in his face as he hung from his seat belt. He was amazingly calm, but it was clear to the rest of us that something was very wrong. The people in the village, having seen the accident, all rushed to help. Mike, speaking Spanish, was able to direct the rescuers in their efforts to get him out of the car.
"The men put Mike into a dump truck -- the only available transport -- and drove us to the regional hospital. The local doctors identified a spinal cord injury, but because of the bankrupt medical facilities in Cuba, there was little they could do other than make him comfortable. They told us the injured area would probably heal on its own. The one thing they could offer, however, was a hyperbaric chamber left by the Russians. The chamber was old and scary looking, but the Russian medical experts had recommended it for these circumstances. We agreed and Mike went into the chamber. I don't think he liked the idea, but he went in. (Months later, we were told by American specialists that hyperbaric treatment has some strong advocates, and that it may have helped reduce the swelling around the injury.)
On the Wings of Mercy
The two women also got creative. And gutsy. They called friends in the U.S. and suddenly an American helicopter was landing at the airport at Santa Clara. It was the first in 43 years. Betsy says, “You cannot imagine the emotion seeing this huge helicopter come out of the sky. The crew and doctors who got off were like angels of mercy, dressed in their jump suits and carrying more medical gear then we had seen in the whole regional hospital." Once onboard, Mike was placed in a neck brace and finally stabilized. The helicopter took off and flew directly from Cuba to the roof of the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where Mike was met by Dr. Barth Green, founder and director of “The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis”.
Michael describes the next few minutes, “The first thing that happened was that Betsy and Toni, who had been on a 24 hour watch, were made to leave my side for the first time in three days, and it was strongly suggested that they shower and change clothes (I guess three days in the same clothes was about enough). I was rushed off with the Doctors. The medical team immediately started to drill holes in my head in order to give me a halo. The whole time they were doing it, they kept asking me questions about my condition. I was so amazed at everything they were doing that I guess I just let them take over. The next thing I knew, I was in an oscillating bed, suddenly very clean and warm, with tubes coming out of me, flowing fluids in and taking other ones out. I knew I was in trouble. Big trouble. But I also knew I was going to be okay.”
Mike and Betsy can laugh about the chicken today, and frequently do. As a youngster in Cuba, Mike had been a highly successful, if small chicken farmer, and still quips today about "the revenge of the leghorns." But on that rainy day in central Cuba, circumstances were far from humorous. It was nothing short of life and death. But luck, family and friends would ultimately prevail.
Being airlifted from an old military airstrip in the middle of Cuba to the helicopter pad on the top of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, with Dr. Barth Green, President and Co-Founder of the Miami Project, waiting to receive Michael was another miracle to visit us. We were in the very best place in the world for a spinal cord injury. The Miami Project had begun years before with a dedicated purpose to find a cure for paralysis. From Cuba to a leading medical facility in the States was a dramatic change. For the first time since the car accident, hope began to creep back into our hearts and minds.
Toni and Betsy got out of the helicopter and were quickly distanced from Michael who was put on a gurney and rolled away with Dr. Green and staff hovering. For the first time since the accident they were separated from their man. Both were escorted downstairs to a private waiting room. They had not bathed or changed their clothes in the last forty eight hours and it seemed reasonable that no one wanted to be near them at that time. Someone from the medical team did come in and explain that Michael was being attended to in the surgical critical care unit. We were told to get some sleep and come back in the morning. Betsy called an old friend who was living in Coconut Grove, Marchant Moore. She was at the hospital in what seemed like seconds and convinced Betsy and Toni to go home with her. It was odd that she had heard about a medical airvac helicopter getting permission to enter Cuban territory and bring out an injured man. She was there to tell us to try to get to Dr. Barth Green and was amazed that we were already with him. When we reached Marchant’s home word had already spread in the community that we were in trouble. Old friends from Colombia where we lived for seven years and were now residing in Miami were talking amongst each other forming plans on how to help us. Casserole dishes, pick-up runs to the airport for Mike’s mother and our children, and other duties were organized. It was at that moment after a tragic accident that one understands the power of friends and family. The team began to form.
Once Dr. Green stabilized Mike's neck with the halo and took a series of x-rays, he decided on the best course of action. He told us that the surgery would involve entering Mike's neck through his throat and placing a titanium plate in the injured area of his spine to brace it against further movement. At the same time, he would take some bone from Mike's hip to rebuild the vertebra that had been damaged in the accident.
The surgery, in the hands of the expert, went perfectly. Five or so hours later, Mike was back in his hospital room, surrounded by the team, which now also included Eric, Thalia and Devon, Mike and Betsy's three children. Michael Smith, Mike’s best friend from USC and Eilleen, were among the first to reach us. It is the fast moving pace of medical procedures and the atmosphere of team building that Mike Smith began his screenplay which describes the journey from “Catastrophe to Conquest” that Mike is still traveling through.
The injury, C 6-7, incomplete was easily pronounced and stated. Understanding what this means was very different. Dr. Green told Betsy when he saw her after the surgery was completed that Michael’s injury was extensive. He had been in Cuba for the first 48 hours and those first hours are critical to stopping further injury from swelling and pressure on the cord. He had been placed in a hyperbaric chamber in Cuba that thankfully the Russians had left behind. We were later told that this could have been the first miracle that kept the damage of his injury from being much worse. He was not given steroids or other medications that are being used now immediately after injury that will help stop post injury damage to the spinal cord. You learn that every injury is different and every patient is unique to their injury and how they will respond. The clock was ticking and Michael was beginning his journey.