Cool Thinking Saves the Day

Fall 2008

Spine specialist Andrew Cappuccino performed the surgery that allowed tight-end Kevin Everett to walk again.
Spine specialist Andrew Cappuccino performed the surgery that allowed tight-end Kevin Everett to walk again.

It was the opening day of the NFL season at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., last September. Buffalo Bills tight-end Kevin Everett made a tackle that injured his spine and left him lying on the field, paralyzed.

Andrew Cappuccino ’84 was there. Cappuccino, a spine specialist who has been an assistant team orthopedic surgeon for the Buffalo Bills since 1995, was one of the first medical professionals to reach Everett in the moments after the accident. His immediate assessment? The 24-year-old football player would most likely be a quadriplegic for life. But, at that point, Cappuccino’s focus was on keeping Everett breathing.

“Don’t leave me like this,” Cappuccino remembers a frightened Everett saying to him that day. And so, with Everett and his family’s agreement, the physician began a course of treatment that included spine surgery and induced hypothermia, an extreme cooling of Everett’s body temperature to reduce swelling of the tissue surrounding his spine. Hypothermia had never been used in a human spine patient before, but Cappuccino felt that it was the best course of action—both during the surgery and in the hours afterward. “If I did nothing, chances were he would remain a quadriplegic and on a respirator for the rest of his life,” he says. “Or I could try something risky [risks include cardiac arrhythmia] and it might help to preserve some spinal cord function. He was just a kid—the same age as one of my boys. I wanted what was best for him.”

His strategy paid off. Several days after the injury, Everett could move his legs. Today he can walk.

It’s the kind of recovery that makes headlines, lands one on Oprah, and causes people to bat around words like “miracle.” Cappuccino, 46, credits his studies at Johns Hopkins for teaching him how to make critical decisions. “One thing my professors always pushed us
to do was to think outside the box,” says Cappuccino, who earned undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering and materials science before returning to Johns Hopkins after medical school to undertake specialty training with nationally recognized spine surgeon Paul McAfee. “They encouraged us to think critically and not to be afraid to make decisions we could support in our work and support in the literature.”

In addition to running his private practice, Cappuccino does research and product development on the biomechanics of spine implants. He lives in Lockport, N.Y., with his wife, breast surgeon Helen Cappuccino. They have six children, aged 14 to 27.

For Cappuccino, treating Everett last fall was a life-changing experience. “Over 15 years, things can become pretty straightforward,” he says. “You can be at the top of your practice but things can become routine. This whole experience reminded me that what we do is significant. We can make a difference.”