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Remarkable Recoveries: Donald's Story

Donald McNeil

From day one at Spaulding, his caregivers made it clear that there was only one goal: Donald would walk out the doors.

  • Recovery after being paralyzed in a high school wrestling tournament.

Recovery after being paralyzed in a high school wrestling tournament.

At just 15, Donald McNeil was already one of the top ranked high school wrestlers in Massachusetts. His rare combination of power, speed and technique had garnered him attention nationwide in wrestling circles. In May of 2007 he was invited to compete in a national tournament in Virginia, his proud family would be in attendance to support and cheer him.

For the first time Donald was competing in a new heavier weight class against an older and larger opponent. Within a few moments of the start of the match it was apparent things were not going well. Donald's opponent had managed to lift Donald over his head and then slam him into the mat. The maneuver landed Donald directly on his neck, dislocating his vertebrae and immediately paralyzing him on impact.

In the stands, his parents could only look on helplessly as Donald lay still on the mat. After being rushed to an emergency room, doctors first concentrated on saving Donald's life. Donald underwent five hours of surgery to realign his spinal column after CT scans and x-rays revealed four to five dislocated vertebrae in his neck and a pinched spinal cord.

After stabilizing him, doctors told the McNeils that the very real possibility existed that Donald might never walk again. The McNeils chose Spaulding as the place for Donald to find hope and recovery.

From day one at Spaulding, his caregivers made it clear that there was only one goal: Donald would walk out the doors. With little feeling from the neck down and no muscle control on his first day, this seemed to be hopeful at best. But under the care of Dr. Kevin O'Connor and the Spaulding SCI Team, every day Donald would make remarkable progress.

Within weeks of the fateful match, Donald took his first few steps. Eight weeks from the day Donald lay motionless on the mat, he walked out of Spaulding with his family, to the cheers of his caregiving team.

Just eight months from that life-altering match in May 2007, Donald was back in school. Under the watchful eye of doctors and his parents, Donald is again back where he loves to be, the wrestling mat. And he is also back to his winning ways, in February 2008 he finished first in the Massachusetts State Sectionals, and in May of 2008 – just a year removed from his accident – he won a national tournament.

No matter how many matches Donald wins, his greatest triumph will always be to just be able to step back onto the mat.

Learn more about Spaulding's Spinal Cord Injury program.

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