Sherry Goes from Spinal Cord Injury, Surgery and Rehabilitation to Full Recovery, Part 1

After a catastrophic accident in 2013 left her paralyzed from the neck down, Sherry Embrey beat the odds to walk again. In Part 1 of her story, we hear about her injury and the surgery that saved her. Read part 2.

One minute, Sherry Embrey was helping her great niece blow out the candles on her birthday cake, and the next, she had fallen down the stairs. A spinal cord injury threatened her life and her mobility, but thanks to expert surgical intervention, outstanding inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, and a whole lot of determination and hard work, Sherry has made a complete recovery. “I’m a walking miracle,” she said.

Sherry’s life-changing fall down the stairs happened on a summer Saturday in 2013, when she was 66 years old. At first, her injury didn’t seem to be too severe. She went home from the party and was able to walk – with a lot of stiffness – the next day. On Sunday afternoon, she settled down on her couch for a nap. But when she woke up, she could not move her arms or legs.

Sherry was taken by ambulance to Inova Mount Vernon Hospital for initial evaluation, where emergency diagnostics revealed she had broken her neck. Her spinal cord was damaged, causing her loss of sensation and mobility. Sherry needed surgery right away to relieve the pressure on her spinal cord. She was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where neurosurgeon John Hamilton, MD, PhD, Medical Director of the Inova Peripheral Nerve Program, Inova Health System; Co-Medical Director of the Inova Spine Program at Inova Fairfax Hospital; and Section Chief, Neurosurgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital, was on call.

Dr. Hamilton examined Sherry and found that she had no movement in her legs and minimal movement in her arms. She had no feeling in her legs or arms as well. Nevertheless, he thought she had a chance. “The MRI showed that although her spinal cord was bruised and damaged, it was not severed completely,” Dr. Hamilton said. “That meant she had a chance, however small it may be, of getting some movement and sensation back. She deserved that chance. So, we prepared her for surgery right away.”

Spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete. In a complete spinal cord injury, the spinal cord is severed, leaving no chance of walking again. If the spinal cord is not fully severed, as in Sherry’s case, it is called an incomplete spinal cord injury. In the case of an incomplete spinal cord injury, patients may regain some form of sensation or movement. How much patients can regain is different in every case.

“Dr. Hamilton is remarkable. He speaks in terms that I, as the patient, can understand. In addition to extraordinary surgical skill and great communication, he has empathy and kindness,” Sherry said.

Dr. Hamilton performed a two-stage surgery over two days to relieve the pressure on Sherry’s spinal cord and stabilize her spine, and the Inova Neurosurgery practice Dr. Hamilton is part of coordinated her postsurgical hospital care. “She needed an anterior and posterior fusion, and I used a somewhat novel approach. Because only one bone was broken, I used a less invasive, microsurgical approach to achieve adequate stabilization,” Dr. Hamilton said. In addition, she had “a remarkable physical therapy and nursing team who cared for her.”

The surgery was a success, but whether Sherry would ever walk again or be independent remained to be seen. The next few days were a waiting game. “Every day, a member of the team would come in and check the sensation in my toes,” Sherry recalled.

On day 10, a change: “I finally felt something in one of my big toes,” Sherry said. It was a big moment for everyone: the Inova team, Sherry’s friends and family, and, of course, Sherry herself. “That’s when things started to come back,” Sherry said. And that’s when the next phase of her incredible journey back to full mobility began.

Find out what happened next in Sherry Goes from Spinal Cord Injury, Surgery and Rehabilitation to Full Recovery, Part 2.

To learn more about the Inova Spine Program at Inova Neurosciences, visit or call 703-776-4700.

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