Instantly paralysed from neck down, he crawled to phone with his chin, then called 911 with his tongue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 2:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 2:04am

Andrew Cho had just returned home alone from dinner with friends in downtown Vancouver when he collapsed.

What came next was the terrible realisation that he was paralysed from the neck down - followed by a remarkable display of willpower as he crawled to his phone with his chin, then called 911 with his tongue.

“It was completely surprising,” the 29-year-old said in an interview from Vancouver General Hospital on Sunday. “It was a pretty big panic moment, you know? You always wonder: what would it be like to be paralysed? To actually go through it, it was…”.

He paused, struggling for the right words.

“It was horrifying. You’re trapped in your own body.”

Andrew Cho thanks his supporters

Something had felt wrong all evening on January 6. The former professional mountain biker was dizzy, and there was numbness in his arms. He had little appetite, so he called it an early night and walked the few blocks to his home at around 8pm.

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He didn’t know it at the time, but inside his spine, between the neck’s C3 and C4 vertebrae, a blood vessel had already burst. The pressure was building, and the clock was ticking.

Back home, his limbs started getting cold. He called a nurse friend who advised him to lie down, but first to unlock the door, just in case first responders needed to get in. As he rose to get to the door, he collapsed. The trapped blood had massed to the point that the pressure on his spine paralysed him.

Cho’s best friend, Danny Brody, who has set up a GoFundMe campaign to cover his medical expenses, said there was irony in the circumstances for Cho, an otherwise-healthy 29-year-old Korean Canadian who has devoted much of his life to a sport like mountain biking.

Donate here to Andrew Cho’s medical expenses

“We grew up together doing backflips and 360s and racing and competing in full-scale competitions…then he gets up from bed one day and, boom, he’s paralysed,” said Brody.

He said he was in awe of Cho’s efforts after he collapsed.

“I don’t know how he did it. I tried it, lying down and dragging myself using my chin and it’s next to impossible. Somehow he did it though.”

Andrew Cho in action for GT Bicycles

In Cho’s words, he “lucked out” upon his collapse, because his iPhone bounced to the ground and ended up about 25cm from his face.

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He also says his odds were favoured by the way his body crumpled to the floor, on one side, facing the phone, which gave him the opportunity to use his chin. “You know in those crime-scene shows, when they show the body outline on the ground? One arm up, one arm down on the side? That’s kinda the position I landed in,” he said with a laugh.

The instant he fell, he retained a tiny amount of movement in his limbs and made a grab for the phone with his right hand. But soon all sensation was lost below Cho’s neck. So he started the painful process of inching his way towards the phone with his chin, painfully grating off a large patch of skin in the process.

“It must have taken five minutes,” he said.

After reaching the phone, he then used the tip of his tongue and after four or five attempts, he managed to activate the Siri voice-control function, and called 911.

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The operators were “calm but surprised” by Cho’s description of his predicament. “I told them they were going to have to break in. But as soon as I got the message across I was pretty relieved.”

Ten minutes later the fire department was breaking down his door. He was rushed to hospital and underwent an immediate four-hour operation to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord caused by the spontaneous epidural bleed.

Cho, the digital marketing manager for GT Bicycles, said he was “improving every day”. Because the injury was a result of pressure rather than the irreparable severing of nerves, Cho’s doctors hope for the best.

“I’m making some progress, but I am told that in six to nine months is when you make the big gains,” Cho said. But recovery could be two years away, or more.

“I have a little bit of movement in my right foot, I can lift my right leg a little bit. My spatial awareness isn’t there though. I don’t know where my hands are: I’ll wake up with my hands by my side but I’ll think they are resting on my chest.

“I’m getting movement in my right arm and wrist. But it’s only day nine.”

The GoFundMe campaign on Cho’s behalf has already raised more than C$90,000 in less than three days, easily hitting the initial target of C$75,000.

The summary on the site says that although Cho’s immediate care costs are covered, long-term medical support and rehabilitation will be expensive.

Brody said his friend’s outlook was the biggest thing in his favour.

“He’s optimistic, which isn’t easy given the present circumstances. But every time I walk into the hospital room, he’s got a big smile on his face. That’s pretty encouraging.”