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On Oct. 4, 2002, Lyena climbed a tree in Malibu's Charmlee Park with
her boyfriend, Dean. She was standing still on two thick branches
when a smaller branch, on which her hand was resting, broke. Lyena
fell backwards out of the tree, about 15 feet.
What were the nature of Lyena’s injuries?
Lyena fractured the 11th thoracic vertebra (T11) which is located
just above the middle of her spine. The fracturing did not impact
her spinal cord though and, alone, might not have caused paralysis.
But unfortunately, Lyena also dislocated her spine at T10/T11. The
dislocation crushed Lyena’s spinal cord, damaging or killing
many of her nerves. As a result, Lyena is completely paralyzed from
the waist down.
also broke a rib when she fell which immediately punched a hole in
her right lung and collapsed it. Although it made it difficult to
breathe for awhile, thankfully, the hole in the lung was a temporary
problem. It has healed completely (along with the rib, as far as we
know) and Lyena currently has no symptoms or problems related to it.
than that, Lyena was, miraculously, uninjured. She didn’t break
any other bones; she sustained no other internal injuries and she
did not hurt her head in any way. She never lost consciousness and
there wasn’t a mark on her body, not even a bruise.
Since her accident, Lyena has been unable to voluntarily move any
part of her lower body (see “Have there been improvements
in Lyena’s physical condition” below for an exciting
exception). By herself, she can’t wiggle her toes, bend her
knees, stand, kneel, crouch or walk. Because she can’t control
her lower stomach or back muscles, her balance when seated has also
been affected. Without the support of a chair or a well-placed hand,
Lyena has difficulty, for instance, taking off a sweater or brushing
Lyena has no sensation below her waist. It’s hard to imagine
what that means exactly but, in Lyena’s case, it means she can’t
feel someone touching her; she doesn’t know where her legs are
at any given moment; she can’t sense temperature, neither scalding
nor freezing, nor anything in between, and she can’t feel pain.
Cuts, scrapes, bruises, sprains, and breaks have to be seen, rather
also has no sexual sensation. She can sense neither touch nor pressure.
there other problems associated with Lyena’s injury?
Yes. The lack of feeling and control below her waist means that Lyena
can’t go to the bathroom by herself. Both her bladder and bowel
must be routinely emptied by medical procedures Lyena performs at
susceptible to recurrent infections, particularly urinary tract infections,
and is at high risk for other health problems such as severe skin
breakdown, cardiovascular disease and the early onset of osteoporosis.
Lyena dependant on others?
No. Lyena is fully independent in her wheelchair. She takes care of
all her personal needs, navigates her physical environment, drives
herself to therapies and doctor’s appointments (using a modified
van), runs her own errands, and lives a full and busy life.
did they do at the hospital?
When Lyena arrived at UCLA Medical Center, she was injected with steroids
in an effort to limit the swelling in her spinal column. Swelling
can cause additional, sometimes very severe, damage after the initial
impact. She went through a series of tests to determine the extent
of her injuries (x-rays, CT scan, MRI) and then into surgery. In surgery,
her dislocated spine was realigned, which finally relieved the pressure
on her spinal cord. Bone fragments from shattered portions of T11
were cleared out and shavings of pelvic bone were taken to construct
a graft fusing T9 (two vertebrae above the injury) to L1 (two vertebrae
below the injury). Lyena’s spine was further stabilized by titanium
rods screwed into T9, T10, T12 and L1.
the broken rib and punctured lung, a tube was inserted through the
skin of Lyena’s chest into her chest cavity to drain the fluid
that was putting pressure on her lung. For several days, the tube
pumped fluid while the hole slowly healed. When there was no more
fluid, the tube was removed. The rib was left to heal by itself.
stayed at UCLA for 10 days recovering from surgery and then flew to
Craig Hospital in Denver, CO for inpatient, acute rehabilitation.
is “acute rehabilitation?”
Acute rehabilitation is the training you receive, immediately after
being hurt, in the skills needed to manage paralysis. In Lyena’s
case, rehab included learning how to turn herself in bed, dress herself,
and transfer from a wheelchair to everything else and back again.
She learned wheelchair skills (i.e. how to handle hills, curbs, doors),
how to cook and shop for groceries from a wheelchair, and how to drive
with hand controls. Lyena learned about various medical issues that
can come up following a spinal cord injury, and how to cope with them.
She learned how to manage her bladder and bowel and how to guard against
skin breakdown, a common complication after spinal cord injury. She
was exposed to various forms of wheelchair recreation and sampled
several wheelchair models, as well as other equipment designed to
make her home more accessible.
rehab make you walk again?
No. The purpose of rehabilitation is to give you the skills and practice
to manage paralysis, not cure it. Except to the degree that proper
management helps maintain overall good health, rehabilitation does
not address recovery from spinal cord injury.
there a cure for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury?
Not yet. Currently, there are no reliable methods that adequately
reverse or repair the damage caused by spinal cord injury. However,
there are people who have recovered without a “cure” and
there are various treatment protocols, from the alternative to the
traditional, that are being used and tested with limited success.
Spinal cord injury research has also increased in recent years, thanks,
in part, to the celebrity and influence of Christopher Reeve. And
this research has been promising enough to make searching for a cure
a viable, research goal. We may not have all the answers today but
there’s still plenty of reason for hope.
is Lyena’s prognosis?
It depends who you ask. Generally speaking, Lyena is not expected
to walk again. Her injury is classified “complete” which
is the most severe classification for a spinal cord injury. Statistically
speaking, it is far less likely that Lyena will experience a return
of function than it is for someone whose injury is classified “incomplete.”
But the central nervous system is very complex and most doctors acknowledge
that too little is known to be sure of the future. Lyena recognizes
the severity of her injury but doesn’t believe that her situation
is hopeless. On the contrary, Lyena lives close to her faith in limitless
possibilities and in her body’s ability to right itself, one
way or another.
Won’t Lyena recover if she just keeps working at it?
Not necessarily. Spinal cord injuries aren’t like other kinds
of injuries. If, for instance, Lyena had merely broken her back without
damaging her cord, she may have faced a long and painful rehabilitation,
but over time, the bones would heal, the muscles would get stronger
and with concerted effort, she would recover. But the cells in the
central nervous system are different. They don’t always heal.
And there are many normal, physiological factors present in the spinal
column that actually impede the healing process. The majority of people
with spinal cord injuries never recover. Many people with “incomplete”
injuries and a few people with “complete” injuries experience
some return of feeling or movement, but full recovery is very rare.
Regardless, Lyena believes that a full recovery is possible and has
dedicated herself to this effort.
What is Lyena doing to recover?
Lyena pursues an evolving combination of traditional and alternative
therapies. Twice a week, she drives herself to Project
Walk, a spinal cord recovery facility in Carlsbad, CA. She receives
acupuncture and massage regularly, and uses homeopathy, Chinese herbs
and other nutritional supplements to support her body’s healing.
A large portion of her time is devoted to different meditation practices
where creative visualization, sound, breath, and movement assist the
healing process. Lyena also uses some of the equipment advocated by
the research team at Washington
University in St. Louis, MO. The St. Louis protocol has been credited
for Christopher Reeve’s recent progress. And in between therapies
and meditations, Lyena explores promising additions to her regimen
and keeps abreast of the latest research.
Have there been improvements in Lyena’s physical condition?
Yes. Since her release from the hospital, Lyena has experienced several
changes in her lower body. Most excitingly, Lyena has become able
to crawl a short distance by herself.
Without the help of trainers, Lyena can bring herself onto her hands
and knees and, while maintaining this position, bring each knee forward,
one at a time. She can’t feel her body moving or sense when
her knee is on the ground, so she has to watch her legs as she goes.
But she can, with effort, cover 10 – 12 ft. on a good day. She
has also achieved much greater balance in her torso and a small range
of movement between her waist and pelvis. She has become able to kneel
with only minimal assistance and enjoys
a greater range of mobility while seated in her wheelchair.
gains have been made in terms of her ability to feel but on one occasion,
Lyena was briefly able to sense pressure in her right leg. It was
the first time in nearly a year that she felt the touch of another
human being on her lower body. We are hopeful that, soon, Lyena will
be able to feel such touch all the time.
Is Lyena still performing?
Yes. Lyena’s passion for presenting stirring live performances
in dance, theater and performance art has not been defeated. Her creative
life is more important to her than ever and several projects are in
the works. In May 2003, Lyena offered “The
Road to Recovery,” a theatrical sharing of her stories and
writings from the first seven months of her recovery effort. It was
a powerful afternoon, full of humor, inspiration, triumph and hope.
She is currently writing a second show which uses mixed media (such
as recorded text, projection, dance and monologue) to juxtapose the
harsh, scientific reality of spinal cord injury with the beauty and
triumph of the human spirit. Lyena also hopes to return soon to Ziggurat
Theatre Ensemble, founded by Lyena and 10 other talented theater
artists several years ago.
Is “The Road to Recovery” available on video?
Yes. An edited version of the show is available on VHS. For purchase
information, click here.
How can I help?
The biggest concern right now is making sure there’s enough
money to support Lyena’s recovery effort. Lyena and a small
group of her friends have been exploring various fundraising possibilities
including live and recorded performances, publishing of Lyena’s
writings, charity events and public speaking. If you have expertise
in fundraising, theatrical production, public relations, media distribution,
event production, or publishing, a donation of your time and expertise
could help ensure Lyena’s recovery effort continues. To offer
help or for more information, please contact
Can I make a financial contribution?
Yes. Contributions of any size are greatly appreciated and are tax-deductible
as allowed by law. To make a contribution, click