Colorado doctor restores function to teenager’s arm with inaugural surgery

March 15, 2021

Two days after he turned 18, a bullet pierced Aaron Assiter’s neck as he sat in his car in Lubbock, TX. The attack left the high school senior paralyzed from the chest down with little to no movement in his left arm, hand, and fingers.

“I had extremely little use of my left fingers and no use of my left arm,” he said. “I was in extreme pain; I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do therapy. I couldn’t get out of bed or anything.”

That’s when he met Dr. Ryan D. Endress, a surgeon who had recently joined the team at Burn and Reconstructive Centers of America at Swedish Medical Center in Denver, CO.

“Dr. Endress is an amazing surgeon, and this surgery was a huge success. The amount of pain that the surgery reduced was tremendous and the amount of movement I’ve gotten back in my left arm is amazing,” Assister said.

Assister is the first patient to undergo a brachial plexus repair at Swedish. The brachial plexus nerves travel from the spinal cord into the extremity and control the arm from the shoulder all the way to the hand. The repair procedure can range from decompressing the nerves to grafting disrupted nerves or transferring other nerves to restore muscle function. Without this surgery, Dr. Endress said, people with brachial plexus injuries often suffer permanent paralysis of part or all of the arm and hand.

“I have almost full use of my left hand and my left arm is getting more and more movement every day,” Assiter said. “Everything is coming back slowly but it’s all coming back.”

When Dr. Endress evaluated Assiter, he found a bullet lodged near the patient’s spine.

“It was compressing the nerves that come out of his neck. We were able to go in, remove the bullet, scrape away the scar tissue, and, essentially, release all of his compressed nerves,” Dr. Endress said. “His improvement has been incredible. The amount of motion he’s regained is going to give him essentially normal hand function.”

Only a handful of facilities across the country offer the brachial plexus repair, said Dr. Endress. With the success of this inaugural surgery at Swedish, Dr. Endress hopes it will encourage more patients to be referred from neurorehabilitation centers. That is how he connected with Assiter and how he hopes, in the future, to connect with more spinal cord injury patients in need of nerve repair procedures. Through the brachial plexus surgery and other surgeries like it, Dr. Endress believes he can help restore function to patients with limitations in not just one arm but both arms as well. Until then, Dr. Endress is focused on maintaining Assiter’s progress and continuing his treatment plan.

“His pain has come back to some degree, but we still have a backup plan for that,” he said. “He still may need some additional surgery to help restore the motion to his shoulder and to help get rid of the pain in his pinky finger but just the improvement in his motion and the initial improvement in his pain was incredible.”

Life may look a bit different for Assiter who has a long journey of healing and rehabilitation ahead of him but, thanks to Dr. Endress and his fellow hand and reconstructive surgeons, he is hopeful and looking at a brighter future.

“I still plan on going to college to be an electrical engineer,” said Assiter. “I’m doing great. I’m doing absolutely great. The surgery really did save me, honestly.”