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Racer undergoes surgery to repair fracture, relieve paralysis

September 11, 1997

MIAMI (AP) _ Auto racing’s Emerson Fittipaldi had ``very successful″ surgery today to repair a spinal fracture and relieve partial paralysis suffered when his ultralight plane crashed near his Brazilian ranch.

``The best news of all is that Emerson is at least as good neurologically as he was before the surgery,″ said orthopedic surgeon Frank Eismont.

Doctors said they planned to have Fittipaldi sit up in bed Friday, and possibly have him walk some the same day.

Eismont said it will be a few days before doctors know if the Formula One star will regain full mobility.

A surgical team of 10 doctors removed the shattered second lumbar vertebra and the discs on either side, and reconstructed the spine with a bone graft and implanted titanium rods and screws.

Fittipaldi’s left leg was paralyzed when he was flown to Miami on Wednesday for surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital, which has an acclaimed spinal injury center.

Fittipaldi, 50, winner of the Formula One drivers’ championship in 1972 and 1974 and the Indianapolis 500 in 1989 and 1993, may be released within a week.

He must wear a back brace for six months and will be ``limited in high-velocity activities for at least a year,″ said neurologist Barth Green.

As a veteran of spinal surgery and a fund-raiser for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Fittipaldi knew how to move himself properly as he awaited rescue through a hot day and a cold night.

As a national hero, he was treated gingerly once searchers found him and his 6-year-old son, Luca, who was not injured. Fittipaldi also suffered a big cut on his head, cuts on his arms and bruises.

``People were actually swimming through rivers with snakes and everything risking their own lives to save his,″ Green said.

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