ATLANTA – Doctors say it is too early to tell if boxer Paul Williams will walk again even though he is able to move himself from his bed to a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the waist down in a May 27 motorcycle accident.
Dr. Donald P. Leslie, the medical director at the Shepherd Center, said Wednesday that the former welterweight champion's spinal cord is not cut, but the severity of damage to it remains undetermined.
"There's no evidence of any severing; he had a fracture of his spine," Dr. Leslie said in a news conference at Shepherd. "The fracture is of the bone. The bone encircles the spinal cord. The spinal cord was injured . . . and that interferes with the transmission of nerves from above to below."
Williams, 30, had surgery Friday in Atlanta's Emory University Hospital to stabilize his spine, and is in rehabilitation in the nearby Shepherd Center.
"He is injured at the mid-chest level, the mid-thorax, and . . . was stabilized with instrumentation," Leslie said. "His spine was fused."
Williams, a native of Grovetown, Ga., near Augusta, first won the welterweight title in 2007 with a win over Antonio Margarito, and lost the belt by decision about seven months later to Carlos Quintana. His Sept. 15 fight in Las Vegas against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez has been canceled.
Williams was not made available to media Wednesday. George Peterson, his long-time trainer/manager, said the fighter's spirits are high.
"I've been with him about 14 years, and I've seen him come from behind many times," Peterson said. "He'll say, 'Don't worry about it; we'll take care of it.' That was his same quote about this injury, 'Don't worry about it; we'll take care of it.'
"It's unbelievable the attitude that he has. He said he wanted to throw some punches, 'Get me a mitt man.' He said, 'If I don't box again, I'm going to do some stand-up comedy.' "
Leslie said that a sprained right wrist has impeded Williams' rehab, but just slightly. The boxer is left-handed, and has been aggressive in therapy.
"He was telling me about his training in the past, and . . . I told him this is going to be one of the biggest training sessions of your life, and he's ready for it," the doctor said. "His attitude is incredible. It is much too early to tell whether he would be able to box again. If attitude will get him in the ring, he's there . . .
"He's in a wheelchair, maneuvering independently. He can roll over independently in bed. He's transferring out of the bed into the wheelchair, out of the wheelchair and onto the mat to work with the therapists. He's working on dressing himself, grooming himself, all the things that we all do every day, what we call activities of daily living."
Leslie said that he anticipated Williams mastering these skills quickly.
"He will probably be here a month," the doctor said. "The average time for people is typically about four to six weeks, but he's in such great shape. He's young, he's healthy, he has a great attitude that might get him through quicker. We may extend some outpatient therapy, the day program, Beyond Therapy if he's an appropriate candidate."
Mitch Fillhaber, Shepherd's vice president of marketing and managed care, offered the Associated Press a tour of some of the advanced rehabilitative equipment that Williams is a candidate to soon begin using as an in-patient and then as an out-patient.
The apparatus range from electrical stimulation designed to make impaired muscles work, to a robotic walking machine that helps patients re-learn walking to a supported treadmill machine over which a patient is suspended while therapists work his or her limbs to simulate walking.
Jay Ruckelshaus, a 19-year-old resident of Indianapolis, suffered quadriplegia last July 17 when he dove into an Indiana lake.
He's been at Shepherd since December, and will finish there next month before enrolling as a scholarship freshman at Duke University. He has gained limited use in one hand, and said that the supported treadmill and the people operating it have helped him.
"Since I've been doing it, I've been getting a lot of sensation back . . . in my hands, my stomach and my back," said the high school valedictorian. "That's the reason I came here. In Indiana, there's no real premier center. Everybody seems to care a lot more."
Fillhaber said that if a person's spinal cord is severed, it's more unlikely that he/she is going to walk, but that if the cord is otherwise damaged the chance of it healing is better.
Leslie said it is impossible to predict the likelihood of Williams walking.
"I can't give you odds," the doctor said. "Unless he recovers some of the nervous energy that gives the lower extremity muscles the ability to contract and support him, he would not walk.
"It may be days to weeks before we'll have a better idea whether he'll be walking again. Whether he does, or whether he won't, he will be independent when he leaves here . . . we've had patients who've had similar injuries to Mr. Williams' who have walked."