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‘A Spark of Nerve’ shines light on local doctor’s work in restoring movement to paralyzed limbs

St. Louis International Film Festival
A still from "A Spark of Nerve"

For years, Dr. Susan Mackinnon, a professor and plastic surgeon with Washington University, has been working to restore movement in paralyzed limbs through a specialized peripheral-nerve-transfer surgery. Now, her work is coming to light through a documentary screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival next week: “A Spark of Nerve.”

Related: Nerve-transfer surgery used to restore movement after spinal injuries

Mackinnon joined “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday to discuss her pioneering work in bringing movement back to limbs that most doctors believe are permanently paralyzed. MacKinnon performed the first donor nerve transplant in 1988 and explains her work like this: 

Credit Washington University Physicians
Dr. Susan MacKinnon

  • Traditionally, an injured nerve was left alone or the limb was amputated.
  • Between World War I and II, people started to bring nerves together and repair them.
  • In the late 1960s, doctors started to splice other nerves into injured nerves. "That was the beginning of nerve-cadaver-aloe transplant that I did in 1998, running out of nerve grafts and doing that," said MacKinnon. Results still "weren't terrific."
  • Now: "You forget where the injury is located, you look around where you want the function and you rob Peter to pay Paul," MacKinnon said. Nerve-transfers came out of those couple of decades of pushing nerves until they failed and looking for something better. 

Here, MacKinnon explains the process in-depth: 

The relatively recent advances in the nerve-transfer process are remarkable in that it restores movements to limbs that doctors otherwise had thought would never work again. In the early days of her work, MacKinnon describes the process as "pretty sad."

"It was better than nothing and I was pretty happy about it. Now, when I look back at it and when I look at pictures of the results now I think 'that's not very good.' And when you look at a patient's face, they didn't look very happy, but I'd take those results because after two or three years, you could get an elbow to bend. ... We'd be thrilled. 

"But now, 9 months, we're getting the same results we'd get at two years. And at two years, the limbs are almost normal with respect to elbow flexion."

You can learn more about advances of nerve-transfer surgery at next Thursday’s premiere at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

“It’s Oscar quality for sure,” MacKinnon said.

Related Event

What: St. Louis International Film Festival Presents "A Spark of Nerve"
When: Nov. 9 at 5:05 p.m.
Where: Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard St. Louis, MO 63130 
More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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