Clovis teen benefits from early detection

Albuquerque Journal photo: Sam Adams Cody Unser, left, and Kenneth Nation, 15, of Clovis, talk after meeting Monday at the University of New Mexico Hospital.

By Olivier Uyttebrouck: The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — A tingling sensation in Kenneth Nation’s hands and legs were his first indication that something was wrong.

Two days later, on June 16, Nation’s parents took the 14-year-old to Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis after he lost the use of his right leg. Doctors that night flew him to University of New Mexico Hospital after the paralysis spread to his left leg.

“I’m not crying because I know there are people out there in worse shape than me,” said Nation, who was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disease caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.

The disease leaves some of its victims paralyzed from the neck down, said Nation, who turned 15 at UNM’s Carrie Tingley Hospital on June 22. He remains paralyzed from the waist down but hopes to regain at least some use of his legs.

“Right now, I could be on a ventilator and have stuff up my nose and have a feeding tube,” he said as he scooted around in a wheelchair recently in a lobby at UNMH. “There are people worse off than me.”

Cody Unser, a high-profile survivor of transverse myelitis, said Nation’s case shows that doctors are improving their treatments since she was stricken eight years ago.

Unser, 20, has visited Nation repeatedly since his diagnosis. She also made arrangements for him to visit a camp in North Carolina next month for kids with transverse myelitis.

“I think the awareness is a lot better,” said Unser, daughter of Albuquerque race car driver Al Unser Jr. “But there’s always room for more.”

Most patients with transverse myelitis experience at least some recovery, usually within one to three months of onset, according to Cody Unser First Step Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by the Unser family. About a third of patients make good recovery.

Physicians at major hospitals are recognizing the disease more rapidly and performing more collaborative research, Unser said.

For example, Nation received treatment at UNMH called plasma exchange, which can slow damage to the spinal cord by filtering disease-causing agents from the blood, said his physician, Dr. Leslie Morrison, a UNM professor of neurology and pediatrics.
Unser said the technique was not used on children at the time she was diagnosed in February 1999.

Nation also received intravenous steroids immediately on diagnosis, Morrison said.

Unser was an athletic 12-year-old when she fell ill at basketball practice with difficulty breathing, chest pains, a weak left leg and tingling in both her legs. She was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, then discharged. She returned to the hospital the following day.

The Unsers subsequently filed a medical malpractice suit against Presbyterian Hospital and two physicians that was settled in 2005. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.