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Chinese Gymnast Unlikely to Walk

July 27, 1998

EAST MEADOW, New York (AP) _ A Chinese gymnast paralyzed in a fall at the Goodwill Games was able to sit up Sunday after successful spinal surgery, but doctors repeated that she probably would never walk again.

Since the seven-hour operation Saturday to rebuild her upper spine, Sang Lan has regained some strength in her shoulders and biceps, said Dr. Vincent Leone, director of spinal surgery at Nassau County Medical Center. But there has been no improvement in mobility in her hands, wrists and legs.

The operation, which stabilized her spine, did allow Sang, 17, to sit up in bed, something that was impossible before the surgery, Leone told a news conference.

Given the complexity of the injury and the healing process, it was too soon to say how quickly the gymnast would progress and what her final prognosis will be, Leone said, adding it was unlikely she would ever walk again. He made the same statement on Wednesday, a day after the accident.

Sunday night, after the gymnastics competition closed with an exhibition performance, the Chinese team joined Sang’s parents in visiting her in her hospital room.

Sang had asked to watch the event on television, but officials were unable to run the proper cables into her intensive-care unit room, Goodwill Games spokeswoman Jan Fanbro said. She said Sang would watch the exhibition later on tape.

Sang, the 1997 Chinese national vault champion, struck the mat with her head after missing a simple vault during practice.

The goal of Saturday’s surgery was to stabilize Sang’s spine by screwing three titanium plates into the section of the neck injured in the fall. Surgeons also removed broken bone fragments and used bits of bone from her left hip to fuse together vertebrae.

``The implants basically prevent her head from falling off her shoulders,″ Leone said.

Sang is also being treated with an experimental nerve drug that doctors said was her only hope of walking again. But it was too early to say if the drug, which provides the building blocks for nerves to repair themselves, was working, Leone said.

``There are just so many different nerve connections that have to heal,″ he said.

Sang’s parents _ who arrived from China just hours after the surgery _ were driven from Kennedy Airport to the hospital and did not speak to reporters. They plan to give a news conference in the next several days, hospital spokeswoman Shelley Lotenberg said.

Sang will have to stay at the hospital for at least a week under observation, and her parents have not decided whether to continue treatment for their only child here or move her back home.

Before her parents left China, Sang’s saddened friends made 1,000 paper birds for the couple to take with them _ symbols of their wishes for a quick recovery.

Sang’s parents rarely saw their child, who was chosen for national-team training when she was 11. Since then, her parents have seen her only three times, most recently in October, as their only daughter trained 740 miles from home in Beijing.

Physicians and others who visited Sang on Sunday said that she was in high spirits.

``This young lady did not stop talking,″ said Nassau County Executive Thomas S. Gulotta. ``Her spirit was uplifting, you had to be encouraged to be in her presence.″

Goodwill Games spokesman Michael Lewellen reiterated an earlier pledge by the event’s sponsor, Turner Sports, and its parent company, Time-Warner Inc., to provide all possible resources to secure the family’s future.

Lewellen said details had yet to be finalized.

``The family has only been here for a few hours,″ he said. ``They haven’t had the opportunity to state their wishes.″

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