Thursday, August 10, 2006

Carson's Tendon Donor

I found this Cincinnati Enquirer article very interesting:

Bengals QB received tendon from victim of drunken driver

Julie De Rossi spent the last night of her life passing out fliers for bands she was managing. As she drove home on a Houston freeway, a BMW traveling at twice the speed limit slammed her from behind.

The collision hurtled De Rossi's Volvo into a concrete barrier, crunching the car like an accordion and leaving the 44-year-old mother with only a faint pulse. She died later that day, the victim of a drunken driver.

De Rossi didn't become a meaningless traffic statistic in the early hours of March 17, 2004. An organ donor, she has since helped mend more than 50 people, including Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, 26, the National Football League's top-paid player.

The knee that Palmer heard snapping apart after a crushing hit during January's playoff game is now held together by Julie De Rossi's Achilles' tendon.

"It's amazing to think that somebody else is inside me," Palmer says.

"You look at the scar. You stare at it. You rub it. It's given me a second chance at life. And I'm extremely grateful to this person."

Palmer is banking on a full knee recovery with tissue from the heel of a free-spirited Texas adoptee. De Rossi stood 11 inches shorter and was 90 pounds lighter than Palmer's 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound frame.

His comeback rests partly on the generosity of an adventurous woman who was married four times, had one son and pursued careers in drag racing, interior design and music.

"She just went all out at everything she ever did in life," Dorothy Hyde, De Rossi's mother, says. "It was all the way or nothing, and I admired that in her."


De Rossi's family agreed to tell Julie's story after Bloomberg News received clearance from Palmer, his doctor, a Houston organ procurement service and the New Jersey tissue bank where her donations were processed and given serial numbers.

Now, her story is also the story of Carson Palmer.

The Bengals made Heisman Trophy winner Palmer the No. 1 pick in the NFL's 2003 draft. Just 10 days before his knee gave way, the team signed him to a contract extension that could pay him as much as $118.8 million over the next nine seasons. He's slated to earn $21.8 million in 2006 alone, according to the NFL Players Association.

Palmer was hurt Jan. 8 as the Bengals faced Pittsburgh. Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into the quarterback's left knee. The hit tore Palmer's anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments - the ACL and MCL - and dislocated his kneecap.

"You hear those two pops, and you know what happened," Palmer says. "Pop, pop. And you know you're done. It's over. Emotionally, it was devastating."


For Julie De Rossi's family, more profound devastation hit in a series of early-morning phone calls. The BMW sport-utility vehicle, driven by Eric Hinton, propelled her car into a barrier on the Southwest Freeway, Houston police say.

They estimated Hinton's speed at 117 miles an hour. The posted limit was 60.

Hinton, then 31, wasn't hurt. His blood alcohol level of .234 was about three times the legal amount. He was convicted of intoxication manslaughter and is serving a five-year prison sentence, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Julie's son, Aaron Hehr, spoke to the neurosurgeon about 5 a.m.

"He said she didn't have any brain activity and that she wasn't going to make it," Hehr, 26, says. "I started saying my goodbyes."

Every time a person dies in the United States, the hospital is required by federal law to ask the family if it wants the organs, tissues or eyes donated.


In some states, signing up to be a donor on your driver's license is enough. In others, such as Texas, the family must consent. Julie had told her family years earlier that when she died, she wanted to be a donor.

"We figured that when someone dies, their spirit or soul or whatever is gone," Hyde, 76, says. "Why just discard the body to deteriorate when it can help someone else? It's what she wanted, and we didn't hesitate."

Twenty-two months after De Rossi's death, Palmer was in the offices of orthopedic surgeon Lonnie Paulos at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. To avoid a weak repair, Paulos, 59, decided on a common procedure: Use a donor Achilles' tendon instead of a donor ACL.

He says De Rossi's Achilles' tendon "is twice as strong as an ACL."

To break the tension of not knowing whether he'd ever play football again, Palmer cracked a joke.

"I said, 'Hey, Dr. Paulos, just make sure this was a guy who ran like a 4.4 40-yard dash, okay?'" Palmer remembers.

De Rossi's family chuckles at the notion. She was strong, they say, but not athletic.


Dorothy Hyde gave birth twice to babies who lived exactly three days before adopting Julie as an infant.

"She was a beautiful little girl, who had a mind of her own from the very beginning," says Hyde, whose late husband, Buddy, was an executive at Dresser Industries Inc.

Julie's desire to mark her own path became more evident as she got older. Sweet Sixteen would produce her first marriage. The union ended within a year. Three marriages later, the former Julie Hyde decided to create a new name for herself: De Rossi.

"She didn't care what anybody said or thought," Hyde says. "And I didn't think it was right to try and stop somebody from being themselves."

Julie's sister, Karen Abercrombie, 43, a corporate marketing consultant in Houston, remembers when the family vacationed in Germany and her then-16-year-old sister conspired with a bellhop to sneak out for a beer.

"She was always a risk taker," Karen says. "Afraid of nothing."


When her life was taken, De Rossi left behind much of value. More than 92,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting organ transplants, according to Richmond, Va.-based United Network for Organ Sharing. Viable transplants can include the heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, ligaments, tendons and skin.

Edison, N.J.-based Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, the biggest U.S. tissue bank, eventually received De Rossi's donations for processing. As is customary, her tissue was returned to the part of the country where the donation took place. Her tendon was stored in a specialized freezer at the Baylor College of Medicine.

On Jan. 10, Palmer was in surgery at Baylor, and Paulos selected the tendon. He attached it to Palmer's knee joint using screws that will eventually dissolve.


The Bengals and Palmer say they hope he can start the new season. There are no guarantees.

"I'm not confident in my knee to, you know, hop over a fence or do anything too crazy," Palmer told journalists before a July 30 practice. "I'm confident in running with it, and planting and cutting.

"But as far as getting hit, having to run full speed and stopping in a small area, I'm not mentally ready for that. And I don't think my knee's ready for that."

Among Palmer's new fans is the family of Julie De Rossi. They're rooting for him to take the Bengals to the Super Bowl.

In time, Palmer's cells will grow in and around De Rossi's Achilles' tendon, genuinely making it part of his own body.

The family members say they hope he thinks of Julie De Rossi not as a piece of tissue but as the person she once was.

"This was not a cadaver who donated this," Dorothy Hyde says. "This was a human being, my daughter. A real, living person with history, who lived life on her own terms. Her name was Julie."


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