A devastating motorcycle accident 18 years ago left Richard Gazlay’s left arm completely paralyzed. A teenager at the time and about to start a modeling career, Richard instead began a 16-year odyssey in search of a medical miracle.
Between the ages of 16 and 32, he saw some 20 specialists around the country who were unable to offer any help or hope—explaining that the trauma to the shoulder irreparably injured the nerves that control the function of his arm. In fact, several advised him to amputate. Instead, Richard kept his arm in a sling—a disturbing reminder of the accident and an irritating magnet for questions about his injury.
Richard stopped seeking any further medical opinions, and it was another five years before a show seen by his brother on the Discovery Channel offered the first clue that there may be other options. Richard’s wife, Jeanne, buoyed by the information, went on an internet search contacting people all over the world, ironically finding the physician who would ultimately help Richard in "their own backyard."
Scott W. Wolfe, MD, who is now an Attending Orthopedic Surgeon at HSS, was Chief of Hand and Upper Extremity Surgery at Yale School of Medicine when the Gazlays first came to see him. With more than a decade of disappointing prognoses behind him, Richard’s expectations were limited. "I was sure Dr. Wolfe would say, 'you have nerve damage and that's it,'" recalled Richard. "I was in awe when he told me what he could do. It was the first and only time anyone had something positive to say."
What Dr. Wolfe, a peripheral nerve specialist, told them was that Richard's brachial plexus injury could be addressed by borrowing a muscle from his leg to create a new biceps for his arm. The nerves to make the biceps work would be routed from his chest muscle. The shoulder would then be fused with a metal plate to provide stability and allow for mobility. On November 2, 1998, Dr. Wolfe, assisted by several colleagues, performed the complex surgery, which was actually three procedures in one. During recovery, Richard would not only need to relearn how to use the new muscle in his arm, he would need to train his mind to accept the change in anatomy. It was a milestone he achieved before even leaving the hospital. Richard progressed faster than anyone expected, and at six weeks he was able to flex his biceps for the first time in over 16 years. "I just knew the surgery was going to work," said Richard.
Two years later, Richard can now completely bend his arm—both to the front and back, can reach his mouth with his hand, and has discarded the sling which was a constant companion for more years than he cares to remember. His physical appearance has completely changed—his arm, which had atrophied over the years, is now almost triple its size and he has a large biceps muscle. His back is more symmetrical, clothes fit really well again, and the only question he gets now, and rarely, is, 'What did you do to your hand?'
"The surgery was a life-changing experience," says Richard, "as much so as when the accident happened." His advice to others: "Surround yourself with positive reinforcement, persevere, and follow what you believe to be true."