On the road to recovery

Our team of spinal experts won’t let a devastating injury slow Barajas down

February 23, 2015

Ruben Barajas remembers the accident in snapshots: Riding his motorcycle to class at Cal State Fullerton. An inattentive driver veering into his lane. Lying on the freeway, unable to move or breathe. Finally, paramedics giving him a lifesaving rush of oxygen.

“That first taste of air after struggling to breathe was absolutely beautiful,” he says. He also remembers the ambulance ride to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, his anxious family, neurological tests and learning at age 25 he might never walk again.

His neurosurgeon, Dr. Daniel Yanni, explains: “Ruben had two shattered vertebrae in his neck—a severe injury that paralyzed his arms and legs. His chances of regaining movement were small, but we tried to ensure the best possible outcome by treating him quickly and aggressively.”

That night, Yanni removed the bone fragments that were compressing Barajas’ spinal cord, replacing the broken bones with a metal cage, plate and screws.

The next day, he excised more bone from the back of Barajas’ spine and anchored the cage in place with metal rods and screws. Both surgeries required tremendous surgical skill and precision.

Barajas was treated for other injuries, too—a broken right arm, fractured ankle and mangled right toe. The neurosurgical and neurocritical care team did everything possible to aid his recovery, even maintaining artificially high blood pressure to improve blood flow to the spinal cord.

Heavily sedated for two weeks, Barajas has no memory of the surgery. But he does remember beginning physical therapy at UCI Health. “My right leg was in a brace and my right arm in a sling,” he says. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.” After three weeks at UCI Health, he was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where he continued to regain the use of his arms and legs.

The hard work and intensive medical care paid off. In January 2013, six months after the accident, Barajas took his first steps. “Just standing up was a shock,” he says. “I’d forgotten how different the world looks when you’re upright.”

He left the rehabilitation hospital in March using only a walker. By October, he was driving and working at a gym part time. In August 2014, two years after the accident, Barajas returned to college with a new career in mind. “I want to help people when they’re at their most vulnerable,” he says. “I can do that best as a doctor specializing in rehabilitation medicine.”

Yanni describes Barajas’ recovery as “truly spectacular.” Barajas credits Yanni: “I’m truly blessed that he had the expertise to put me back together,” he says. “I’m blessed beyond belief.”

To learn more about UCI Health neurosurgical spine services, visit ucirvinehealth.org/spine.

— UCI Health Marketing & Communications
Featured in
UCI Health - Winter 2014/2015 Issue