The 1 percent
Patient who made miraculous recovery at UF Health Jacksonville honored at Night for Heroes event
By Tiffany Wilson
A moment before, the quarterback, then 29, was at the top of his game as he led his team in a flag football tournament. Then one hit July 3, 2010, left him with no feeling from the neck down.
Tim and his opponent had been jumping for the football. They caught it simultaneously, and neither would let go. Tim fell to the ground sitting upright. The other player landed on top of him, inadvertently shoving Tim’s head into his body. His neck broke and he was instantly paralyzed, falling backward like a ragdoll.
Only one place in the region was equipped to handle Tim’s injury – UF Health Jacksonville’s TraumaOne, the only Level I adult and pediatric trauma center in Northeast Florida.
Tim was swarmed with doctors and nurses the moment he arrived at the hospital. Everyone wanted to know if he could feel this sensation or that prick. The answer was always no. When Tim’s wife, Jamie, arrived, she received devastating news: Her vibrant, athletic husband was a functional quadriplegic.
The trauma surgeon on duty that day, Elizabeth Vitarbo, M.D., an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville, reviewed MRI images of Tim’s spine before stepping into his room. It was a very rare and serious injury, with C3 and C4, the third and fourth cervical vertebrae, shoved out of place. There was a strong chance Tim would never regain feeling below his neck.
Then, finally, some good news: Tim was able to move one shoulder. That meant there was still some movement in muscles controlled by the spine below the injury. Vitarbo knew the sooner she took Tim into surgery, the better chance he had of regaining some muscle function.
In the operating room, the surgeon cut a small incision in the front of Tim’s neck. She pushed tissue and blood vessels out of the way, removed the disc between his injured vertebrae and realigned the bones to a normal position. She then replaced the disc with a plug of cadaver bone and fastened it into place with a metal plate and screws. The bone would grow over time and adhere to his vertebrae.
Shortly after Tim was wheeled back to his room, his father, Steve Callahan, couldn’t stop himself from weeping in relief
when he saw Tim’s toes wiggle.
Orthopaedic surgeon John Kirkpatrick, M.D., later fused Tim’s vertebrae on the back side of his neck, reinforcing Vitarbo’s work from the first surgery. To do it, he took a bone graft from Tim’s hip and connected it to the vertebrae using screws and rods. This bone also would grow, eventually fusing with the bones above and below it.
Every day, Tim regained a little more strength. His wiggling toes became wiggling feet, then feeling began to return to his legs and continued working its way up.
Near the end of Tim’s two-week stay in the intensive care unit, the rehabilitation team was able to sit him upright. He was so weak, he feared his head would fall off. But even without his physical strength, he turned to the mental athlete inside. He was determined to walk again.
Tim was transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital and focused on his plan. Once Tim could stay upright for at least 30 minutes without blacking out, physical therapist Renan Abagat stood him up.
“He put my arms on his shoulders, and then we walked on the fourth floor of Brooks. It was the biggest milestone – to walk again. I was sobbing my eyes out all day after that,” Tim recalls.
Tim’s return to walking was already remarkable, but he took his recovery much further. He walked out of Brooks on his own, returned to coaching basketball, and even played flag football once more so he could end his time playing the beloved sport on his own terms, rather than in such a devastating way.
Tim also found his calling, the Tim Callahan Foundation, a nonprofit offering free, faith-based sports camps to underprivileged children.
The biggest dream of his life – to become a father – finally came true after years of trying. His son, Elijah Joseph Callahan, was born in summer 2014, just a few days shy of the four-year anniversary of Tim’s accident.
Tim likes to recount a conversation he overheard during one of his yearly follow-up appointments at UF Health.
“When we teach you about the 1 percent chance of recovery, this is that 1 percent,” he heard Kirkpatrick tell his residents when they met him.
Kirkpatrick said Tim’s case was rare, but he couldn’t say it was a surprise.
“When people come in as severely injured as he did, it’s generally not expected that they’ll see much recovery. But miracles happen every day around here,” he said.