‘Any One of Us’ shows harsh realities and hope for spinal cord injury patients

Extreme sports may be to blame. Or it might be a falling tree, an error with a surgery, or an auto wreck.

As the title of the tough, direct, and new HBO documentary makes clear, “Any One of Us” might suffer from a calamitous spinal cord injury (SCI). The 1-hour and 25-minute work by first-time director Fernando Villena focuses on pro mountain biker Paul Basagoitia but is carried by a “chorus” of 17 women and men who all have had significant injuries to their spinal cords.

The participants offer candid and blunt testimony about how life-changing their experiences have been, with one commenting that SCI patients endure the awkward curiosity of others, most of them wanting to know three answers: How were you hurt? Can you have sex? Will you ever walk again?

Villena’s documentary answers those questions and more, primarily by detailing the two years that elapse after Basagoitia, as part of the extreme Red Bull Rampage biking competition, plunges down a steep rock face. He suffers a burst-fracture of his 12th vertebrae and a partially severed spinal cord. The awful incident is captured not only by crews filming the competition but also by his own helmet-mounted camera.

Basagoitia, in unflinching fashion, then allows himself to be filmed or shoots more of himself as he undergoes agonizing treatment and rehabilitation at the respected Craig Hospital in Colorado. There, the doctors and therapists provide constant cheer, excellent care, and support, but not false hope for not only Basagoitia’s future. They make clear to him and others like him that the chances they will recover fully and well enough to walk out of the facility are slim, with the percentages in the single digits.

The patients all look into the camera and insist they will be the ones to defy the odds.

But the documentary makes clear that their initial optimism often gives way to fear, anxiety, and deep depression. Patients, Basagoitia especially, permit candid filming, as they struggle with daily ordeals like going to the bathroom, eating or being fed, and the excruciating therapies involved in rehabilitation. They learn and emphasize that each injury case differs, and doctors, thus, cannot and do not forecast individuals’ outcomes. Some patients show early promise, then get stuck. Others start slowly and progress in sustained ways. Some see little or no change. All must adapt to drastically changed circumstances in which their hopes, dreams, capacities, and dependence on others shifts, forever.

Basagoitia and the other patients also obsess about their treatments and if they work, or if alternatives might help them more. Although his wife sees him making progress that he cannot recognize, the ferocious competitor despairs about ever returning to the athletic prowess that enabled him to find success and joy in a sport that got him away from a difficult childhood. He wants to walk again, without any assistance, and he aspires to return and be at the top of his game.

Villena takes care not to impose his or outsider views on Basagoitia’s post-injury choices. A difficult section of the documentary chronicles how Basagoitia fixates on costly, risky, and unproven stem cell treatments as a way to restore himself from his spinal cord injury. His wife opposes the idea, but Basagoitia — despite getting contrary expert advice (as is shown in the documentary) — decides to drive from his home in Nevada to a clinic in Mexico for the unapproved therapy.

What happens? Check out this revealing show.

It offers excellent insights into the harms that I see in my practice when patients seek medical services and the havoc that can be inflicted on their lives and those of their loved ones when they sustain spinal cord and brain injuries. Outside magazine reported on “Anyone of Us,” with writer Gloria Liu expressing great urgency and connection to this show because her own husband was biking and was struck by a hit-and-run driver. He was left in a ditch with more than “30 broken bones (including every rib), collapsed lungs, life-threatening internal bleeding from a shattered pelvis, and—though we wouldn’t know at first—a spinal-cord injury. It would paralyze his left leg and disrupt his bowel and bladder functions.” Her husband was hospitalized for two months before undergoing treatment, also at Craig Hospital. He returned home just before “Anyone of Us” debuted on HBO.

Liu reported that: “As the film’s title [emphasizes] … a spinal-cord injury could happen to anyone. The National Spinal Cord and Injury Statistical Center estimates that 17,700 people in the U.S. suffer new spinal-cord injuries every year and 288,000 people live with an SCI.”

Indeed, though doctors, hospitals, insurers, and others may assail actions in the civil justice system, especially medical malpractice suits, they can play a vital role in ensuring that injured individuals can access and afford the complex, demanding, and expensive medical and other care they may require for a lifetime.

Basagoitia experiences in the HBO documentary some of the extreme stress of dealing with the huge costs of his medical services. The audience sees his anguish and reluctance — and his gratitude — that his family, friends, and sporting comrades (including Red Bull) raise money to help defray his costs, as well as giving him the sustained personal and emotional support he needs to accept and transition into his new and different life. This can be tough viewing. It should be required for those unfamiliar with or doubting about the harms of brain and spinal cord injury.

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