South Bay ER doctor makes miraculous recovery after surfing accident left him a quadriplegic

A true "Christmas miracle." That's how some people describe the extraordinary case of Dr. Matthew Wetschler. The Valley Medical Center emergency room doctor had a surfing accident in November that left him a quadriplegic. Days before Christmas, Wetschler is walking and talking about his ordeal. 

Sometimes smallest steps traverse the greatest distances. In a San Jose rehab facility, Doctor Matt Wetschler is walking toward his future.

"Those first steps were joyful, and I don't say that word often, but it was a deep feeling of joy," said Wetschler, as he sat in front of a bank of television and newspaper cameras.

His new found joy comes after a colossal spinal cord injury that turned this Valley Medical Center emergency room doctor into a patient at the hospital.

"When matt came in to the hospital, he had the most severe spinal cord injury imaginable. He was unable to move his arms and legs," said Dr. Sanjay Dahall, a neurosurgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. He's part of the team that is helping Wetschler on his road to a full recovery.

Wetschler's brush with being a quadriplegic happened November 15th while riding waves at Ocean Beach. A wave slammed him head-first into shallow waters, breaking his neck on the ocean floor.
Matt says he lost two days of memory immediately after the accident. One of the things he does remember is lying in the cold ocean water, face down and unable to move. Sure he was about to die, he screamed, perhaps out of desperation. A friend told him the scream was a call to action for the planet. Apparently it worked.

A surfer and an ICU nurse saw Wetschler's body and pulled him from the ocean. Another passerby, this one a doctor, started CPR to keep him alive for the trip to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Once there, neurosurgeons performed "ultra-early" surgery, fusing metal rods to five vertebrae, while at the same time micromanaging blood flow to his spinal cord. The theoretical approach proved successful, and is now a template for treating spinal cord injuries.

"We've been able to disprove the notion that spinal cord injuries are permanent and irreversible. Matt is yet another example of somebody who shouldn't have recovered, but he did," said Dr. Dahall.

Wetschler now spends five hours a day on physical, occupational, and group therapy to relearn the basics: sitting, standing and playing catch. Specialized equipment such as the zero-gravity harness accelerate the learning curve.

"We've been amazed at just how much neurologic recovery he's had since he's come here," said Dr. James Crew, the chairman of the Valley Medical Center Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Doctors say Wetschler's prognosis is good, and he could return to work in the ER sometime in the new year.

"I hope that a patient will come in here injured, frightened, and I’ll come up to them and say, ‘I came in here in a wheel chair and left walking,’" said Wetschler.