Cuban athletes rescued from broken dreams

Although some of them thought they’d never take part in sports again, they did, thanks to the wonders of Cuban medicine


(September 29, 2009) – THE FOLLOWING STORY might sound unreal: a man broke his arm in two, many of his vertebrae were “shattered” during a volleyball game at the Rio de Janeiro Pan-American Games, two years ago. Trying to spike, he jumped in the air and stretched out so much that his body flew almost parallel to the floor. When he fell, he felt a bomb exploding in his back.

A few days later in Cuba, the examinations showed something horrible: Michael Sánchez Bozlueva had the rear part of the fourth and firth lumbar vertebra shattered as if they had exploded.

“From the surgical point of view, there was nothing to do. Had we applied a bar with trans-perpendicular screws, we would have limited the mobility of the lumbar-sacral part of his spine forever,” said Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, a brilliant Cuban orthopedist.

They prescribed him complete rest for 90 days, and then immobilization for six months. Those days must have been horrible for Michael, who was paralyzed by a giant cast which covered most of his over six feet long body. But after a year and a half the result was frightening: “Both the X-rays and the clinical examinations showed he hadn’t improved at all.”

In February 2008, the medical team led by Álvarez Cambras came to a very sad conclusion: the treatment had been unsuccessful, the fractures hadn’t healed and the lumbar-sacral region of his back bone was unstable. He’d have to say good-bye to his career as an athlete.

When Michael heard the sad news and was advised to “devote his life to something else” in the field of volleyball, he began to cry. Tears welled in the eyes of his parents and his coach as well. “I felt like crying myself,” Dr. Álvarz Cambras confessed later.

Michael, also known as “the Russian” because of the place of origin of his mother, bitterly told the Granma daily in an interview, “The many dreams I had make it difficult to accept this situation after hearing the opinions of the doctors.”

Unraveling the Miracle

How come then that “the Russian” is back playing for the Cuban team? The answer to that question was made known three days ago at the 20th International Orthopedics Conference held in Bayamo, a city in eastern Cuba.

Dr. Álvarez Cambras delighted the public with his lecture “Back to the sports field,” describing in detail the surgery performed on twenty-three year old Michael Sanchez.

After tense days of debate, the senior orthopedist and his team decided to operate. Their aim was improving Michael’s quality of life and perhaps helping him return to the sports field, but the prospects were very low.

The operation was very complicated. “We introduced eight bone grafts from our Tissue Bank between his fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae; two over the spines, two over the laminas, two over the transverse and two frontal inter-somatics.” It was July, 2008. This was unheard of in Cuba.

“After eight and a half months,” he said, “the grafts had made some progress and we allowed him to be with the team, not playing, but sharing the game atmosphere with his team mates.”

“Forty five days later, we found that the grafts and the bones were knitted together. We recorded his stability tests and let him play for a few minutes with the team. Then these periods of time were increased little by little,” explained Álvarez in his presentation.

In December, 2008, only a few months before the beginning of the Volleyball World League, and given the great disposition of the young athlete, Álvarez Cambras asked him, “How would you like to beat the Russians and the Bulgarians in the World League?” It was his way of telling Michael that he had permission to play again. It was a dreamed-of door opening, the return of the warrior who would help Cuba classify for the finals and finish fourth in the world.

Broken Bones, Not Hearts

Michel’s is not the only true story we heard at the International Orthopedics Conference. The cases of seven other athletes, who had suffered serious injuries and were saved by the Sports Traumatology Services of the Frank País Hospital, were also presented at the meeting. It’s curious to note that all of these athletes who went through rehabilitation are Olympic champions.

Some examples are boxer Teófilo Stevenson, runner Alberto Juantorena, runner María Caridad Colón, volleyball player Mireya Luis, long distance jumper Iván Pedroso, baseball player Lázaro Vargas and high jumper Javier Sotomayor.

Maybe most people don’t know that boxer Stevenson, who won the world and Olympic titles three times, had to go through rehab twice. In 1974, he took part in the Havana World Cup a serious injury to his right foot and he won. Then in 1980, he won the gold medal at the Moscow Olympics, only two months after the Cuban doctors took care of a fracture of two of his ribs.

Maybe the most impressive story is that of María Caridad Colón, who suffered a serious injury in the dorsal-lumbar part of the spine, ten minutes before her event at the Moscow Olympics. “I injected her spine to ease the pain and told her: ‘Throw that javelin with all your strength, that’s your only chance. After that the javelin will fall at your feet,’ and she did it that way. The outcome was the first Olympic medal for a Latin American athlete,” Álvarez recalled.

Volleyball player Mireya Luis was operated on several times in Cuba for different reasons: a lumbar-sacral disc hernia, an injury in her right shoulder (the one she uses in the attack) and a fracture of the patella. Despite all this, she shined as no one else did at the time.

Runner Alberto Juantorena had to undergo surgery on two Morton´s neuromas – a painful condition that affects the space between the toes – just before he became the Olympic champion in 1976, in Montreal.

We also heard about the cases of Iván Pedroso and Lázaro Vargas. The former, a long jumper, managed to recover from an injury consisting of breaks in both parts of the femoral biceps, and after the surgery he won many competitions, including the Athens Indoor Field and Track World Cup, held only eight months after this complex operation.

Baseball player Lázaro Vargas, who suffered what Álvarez called “the most incredible injury” of its kind he’d ever seen, also went back to play thanks to the treatment by this team.

However, none of these stars would have made it if in 1970 Fidel hadn’t shown interest in nine outstanding Cuban athletes who were not able to take part in sports ever again.

“I remember that the Commander-in-chief summoned us to a meeting, which was also attended by President of the Cuban National Institute of Sports and Recreation (INDER), García Bando, Celia Sánchez and the President of the Cuban Olympic Committee Manuel González Guerra. Fidel spoke of the necessity of creating a new centre specializing in sports traumas. We went out on a trip for 45 days, touring Mexico, Japan, the former Soviet Union, Italy, the GDR, France and Spain,” Álvarez recalled.

These specialists from the Frank País Hospital realized then that the recovery of an athlete is very different from that of an ordinary patient.

“One of our secrets is that we continue to train the part of the body that is not injured. This is what we did with the legs of Michael, for instance,” added Álvarez.

The other secret of the athletes is their will to overcome any obstacle. Their accomplishments are miraculous, and could be summarized in one phrase: their bones break, but not their hearts. That organ continues to beat unstoppable in every single part of their bodies.

Source: Juventud Rebelde, Cuba


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