Man paralyzed from neck down walks again, credits neurosurgeon from Michigan

Mar 6, 2020

Chris Barr said he was given the worst news of his life three years ago. 

"You've had a catastrophic neck injury. You're paralyzed from the neck down," a doctor told Barr after he fell while surfing at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Barr's neck was fractured in eight places.

"I went surfing, like I had every weekend for 10 years, and I fell," the now 55-year-old Barr told the Free Press. "I went headfirst into the ocean floor with enough force to break my neck."

Barr was a quadriplegic — he couldn't use his arms or his legs. Hopeless, he asked to be taken off the ventilator keeping him alive in a hospital bed. His family convinced him to hold on.

Then Dr. Mohamad Bydon, a Michigan native and neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, made contact with the Barr family.

Bydon became the hope that Barr was looking for when he offered to make him the first patient in an innovative stem cell transplant trial he was leading with his team.

"He’s a wonderful person," Bydon said of Barr. "It’s never easy to be patient 1 because it’s a treatment that hasn’t been given before in the setting that we gave it and he really was the perfect person."

Barr turned out to be a "super responder" to the Mayo Clinic trial, which involved taking stem cells from Barr's belly fat and injecting them into his spinal cord.  

“After we treated him, the improvements started to come quickly,” Bydon said.

Barr initially hit small milestones like tying his shoes, but even surprised himself when he began to walk with assistance six months after injection. Two years after his injury and 12 months following injection, Barr was able to stand and walk on his own. 

"What Dr. Bydon and the Mayo Clinic team are doing is absolutely giving light where there was darkness and providing hope for people with spinal cord injuries," said Barr. "He's the LeBron James of neurosurgery."

Bydon said the two have since become friends.

“I’m so happy for Chris and for his recovery that we’re seeing," Bydon said. "I want that to become what we can offer across the board, not everybody will have that same recovery of course.”

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