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My long overdue thank-you

Perhaps the dumbest question I've ever asked in a lifetime of asking them was posed to Mario Campagna.

The talented neurosurgeon had just carefully explained how he hoped to repair my broken neck by taking a bone from my left hip and wiring it to my broken vertebrae.

The two main goals of the operation were to reduce the pressure on my spinal cord while fusing the bones to strengthen my neck, he noted.

"Will I be able to wrestle in college?" I asked from the hospital bed in what is now Rogue Valley Medical Center. I was a quadriplegic — paralyzed from the neck down.

"One step at a time," he replied.

It was mid-May, 1971.

A little background is needed here. I was a newly minted Marine Corps veteran gung-ho about going to college on the GI bill. My intent was to try out for a spot on the collegiate wrestling team as a walk-on.

Never mind I had been only a fair to middling wrestler in high school. I figured to make up for the lack of talent required at the college level by working harder than anyone else.

Of course, now there was this little matter of a broken neck, the result of a car wreck while drinking with buddies in celebration of having completed my hitch.

You needn't remind me of the utter stupidity of drinking and driving. As the driver, I'm thankful it was my neck that snapped like a celery stick, that no one else was hurt.

Memories of those distant days surfaced when I was interviewing Frank Lang for the piece on strokes in today's paper. His stroke had left him temporarily paralyzed on the left side.

Nothing in life prepares you for paralysis. Think of it as being buried up to your neck in sand, unable to move. You can't even scratch your nose.

I continually fought off a creeping panic that threatened to smother me.

Those memories prompted me to do something I've been intending to do for years. On Friday morning, I contacted Dr. Campagna, now 85 and retired, to offer him a long-belated thanks for saving my life that spring.

He met me at the door of the comfortable Medford home he shares with Edie, his wife of 60 years next month.

"You've made a marvelous recovery," he said as we shook hands. "So many people never walk again. So many spend the rest of their time in a wheelchair."

Since I was one of countless patients he had in more than 40 years of practicing medicine, he naturally did not remember the specifics of my case.

But he recalled it in general terms as we talked. I showed him his handiwork in the form of the half-foot scar on the back of my neck. I like to call it my Frankenstein zipper.

And he recognized my gait as someone who had recovered from a severe spinal cord injury. I still drag my right leg a bit, but I get there just the same.

Today, he is a congenial fellow with an easy laugh. When he was in his white coat, like most medical specialists, he was all business.

"You focus on the pathology," he explained. "You have to concentrate on that to get the job done right."

When he runs into former patients on the street, he may not remember the patient but he invariably recalls the operation.

"I'll remember the tumor but not the patient," he said with a chuckle.

His is truly an American success story. The son of Italian immigrants, he received his medical degree from what is now Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and interned at Philadelphia General Hospital. He would spend four years as a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic before settling in Medford, where they raised their four children.

"Your question wasn't that dumb," he insisted after being reminded of the wrestling inquiry. "I didn't know if you would walk again. Of course, there was no way to tell if you would be able to wrestle again."

But the mere question told him I was going to fight to recover my mobility, he noted.

Within a few days of the operation, I could move the big toe on my left foot. I was on my way back, although it would take the rest of the year in a VA hospital before I made good my escape, leaning heavily on a cane.

I never did wrestle in college, although I would graduate from the University of Oregon. Thanks to Dr. Campagna's surgical skill, I have had a full life with children, a fascinating profession and plenty of travel.

Interestingly, Friday was the first time I had met the neurosurgeon while I was standing up. I always figured he was a lot taller than me. Turns out he is about my height, slightly gravity challenged.

But Dr. Campagna will always be a towering 6 feet 4 inches tall in my mind.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.