Originally created 08/01/98

Paralyzed gymnast begins rehabilitation



NEW YORK -- A Chinese gymnast paralyzed in a Goodwill Games accident has been told by doctors she likely never will walk again much less compete.

Sang Lan began rehabilitation Friday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, where doctors and therapists will try to return the 17-year-old to as normal a life as possible, Dr. Kristjan T. Ragnarsson said.

"From the medical point of view, the chances of her gaining strength in her legs is poor. That doesn't mean there isn't hope," Ragnarsson said. "I am hoping that she will one day be able to become self-sufficient.

From conversations conducted through a translator, "I think she fully realizes the extent of her injury," Ragnarsson said.

The teen-ager broke her neck during a warm-up vault at the Nassau Coliseum on July 21. She underwent surgery last Saturday, but has little sensation from the chest down. Doctors have discounted some toe movement as an involuntary twitch.

"We hope that she will eventually be able to turn herself over in bed, use a wheelchair and ... take a shower," Ragnarsson said.

Sang is expected to stay at the hospital for at least two months, where she will undergo rigorous physical therapy and receive psychological counseling to help her cope with her disabilities and "separation anxiety" she may experience when her teammates depart at the end of the games Sunday, the doctor added.

China's 1997 national vault champion also will continue to take an experimental nerve-building medicine. But doctors have warned against calling it a miracle drug.

Ragnarsson is the same doctor who treated New York Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd, who recovered six years ago from paralysis after he broke his neck in a game. His recovery was termed "miraculous," but the doctor said Sang's injuries were more severe.

Byrd had feeling in his legs almost immediately after the injury, while Sang has no feeling in her lower body.

Despite the diagnosis, Ragnarsson said, Sang's spirits remain high.

She received an emotional boost when "Titanic" star Leonardo DiCaprio visited with her for more than an hour Thursday.

"She didn't need a doctor for that meeting," Ragnarsson said.

Posters autographed by DiCaprio were hung in her private hospital room.

Her parents, Sang Shisheng and Chen Xiufeng, arrived from China last week and are staying in the hospital's temporary residence for relatives of patients.

Sang Lan has requested traditional Chinese food, which her parents have been preparing for her, the doctor said.