For an Injured Boy, a Chance at a Better Life

By Alice Reid
Friday, December 14, 2007

Stephan Khangaa's first words after the car crash that morning were, "Mama, I think I'm gonna die."

Mary Khangaa and her son were headed to his first day of kindergarten last year when another car sideswiped their Toyota, sending them careening into a tree beside the Suitland Parkway.

So much for kindergarten. Instead, the two were whisked to area emergency rooms, and Stephan spent hours in a Children's Hospital operating room. There, pediatric neurosurgeon Amanda Yaun worked to save not so much Stephan's life as much of what makes a boyhood worth having -- his ability to walk, to run, throw a ball or lift a spoon to his mouth or even breathe. In short, without Yaun's intervention, Stephan faced a life of wheelchairs and ventilators.

The 5-year-old had been seat-belted in the car's back seat, but the crash had whipped his neck with such ferocity that many of the ligaments holding the top section of his spine together were in tatters. Without that support, a vertebra would almost certainly shift and damage his spinal cord.

"It was the worst spinal injury I've ever seen, in terms of ligament damage," Yaun said. "The ripped ligaments between the first and second vertebra threatened the spinal cord, and at that level, spinal cord damage means you can't breathe."

Already, bone had nicked the sheath surrounding the spinal cord.

"When I made the incision and began to work, spinal fluid spurted up at me," she said.

Yaun fused the top two vertebrae and hoped that the slightly less damaged ligaments holding vertebrae 3 and 4 together would heal themselves. She and Children's radiologists watched closely what they hoped would be progress, and Stephan went on to life with a "halo," a contraption that screws into the skull and fully immobilizes the neck.

Mary Khangaa, a single mom who now lives in Silver Spring, said she recovered quickly from a small fracture in her hip. Stephan was discouraged.

"Mama, I can't walk! I can't ever play basketball!" she remembers him telling her.

Then one day, he said, "Mama, I'm going to walk!"

"And three weeks later, he did," she said.

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