Spinal cord injury patient makes gift to research in hopes that other patients can achieve mobility 

Tina Doscher knew that surgery to save her life also would leave her temporarily paralyzed. She knew she might never fully regain the ability to use the left side of her body. And she knew she had to try it anyway.

“I like the fight,” she said recently at her home in West Ashley.

Doscher swung her left leg from the time she was a child, a quirk no one ever considered a serious medical issue. Only in 2009, at age 50, did her leg begin to give out beneath her, and she no longer could hold weight in her left arm.

An MRI revealed a healthy brain but something in her neck -- a tangle of blood vessels called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, which restricted blood flow. The AVM, a condition likely developing since birth, had overtaken Doscher’s spinal cord.

Every day the possibility of stroke loomed. She continued her career in business development but became more and more powerless over her own body.

Doscher found a specialist in Arizona who would operate before she became immobilized.  She and her husband traveled there in August of 2010, the same time they had planned to take an Alaskan cruise. They settled for ambling around the Grand Canyon, Doscher’s cane in hand, and exploring Sedona’s red rocks before checking in at the hospital.

Her first surgery clipped the tendrils of the AVM, and the second reached the nucleus, sending Doscher’s spinal cord into shock but returning the necessary blood flow to her body. When she woke up in the intensive care unit, able to move only her mouth, her brother told her the good news: “They got it all.”

Tina Doscher works on wrist movement in Dr. Aiko Thompson's lab. 

For six days, Doscher lay paralyzed. The hospital announcement chimes teased, as they reminded her of the cruise ship she should be on. But she lifted her head from her pillow on the third day, and within a week and a half, movement had returned to her right arm and leg. At three weeks her surgeon noted that she had lost the use of her left arm, but Doscher told him, “I’ll get it back.”

She stayed in Arizona for six weeks, her husband by her side more than 12 hours every day. She went home with a wheelchair. When she found that she couldn’t get through her narrow doorways into her kitchen, she pushed herself into using a walker instead. 

“It’s a journey,” she said. “Nothing comes back right way.”

Doscher refused to pity herself and set rules for recovery. No television until 5 p.m. She would spend her work day working on getting better. 

She went to MUSC’s outpatient physical therapy clinic and walked the treadmill, one slow and clunky step after the other. But with each visit, her muscles remembered. And her legs grew stronger.

A year and a half after her surgery, Doscher went back to Arizona for a follow-up appointment and walked across the room to greet her surgeon. She credits her therapy in Charleston for her improvement.

“MUSC gave me hope,” she said.

Doscher and her husband, Richard, recently made a significant contribution and also a planned gift through their estate to support the work of MUSC associate professor Aiko Thompson, Ph.D. Two years ago Doscher joined a study in Dr. Thompson’s lab that uses stimuli to train the nervous system.

Doscher visits Dr. Thompson three times a week, most recently focusing on using her wrist. With a paddle on her head that sends electrical messages to her brain, Doscher focuses on lifting her wrist like it’s her job.

“Of all people we’ve worked with, she’s definitely one of the special group of people who are highly motivated,” Dr. Thompson said. “She knows she has to work hard to get anything.”

The Doschers’ gift helps to explore new treatment protocols, something Dr. Thompson knows would be impossible without private support. “No one wants to spend money until you demonstrate success, but without funding we don’t get to try anything new,” Dr. Thompson said.

The Doschers’ gift not only benefits other people with spinal cord injuries but also stroke patients who use similar treatment protocols -- people who need a combination of science and encouragement to regain their movement and independence.

 “I’m not someone who says it can’t be done,” Doscher said. “Because it can.”