Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fletcher the fighter battles hard

Damaged rod left his head with no structural support

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OTTAWA -- Manitoba junior cabinet minister Steven Fletcher sat in his 29th-floor office in downtown Ottawa last week and gazed at the stunning views of the Ottawa Valley that stretched out below.

He is a little thinner than before, his black suit hanging loosely on his body. But he is no less feisty and he has a clear message for anyone who thinks his health problems will keep him from staying in politics.

He's back and he's not going anywhere.

That Fletcher is this confident in his current health is nothing short of a medical marvel.

Just two months ago, Fletcher was meeting with his lawyers to make sure his will was up to date. The new year had barely begun when Fletcher, 39, was told by his orthopedic surgeon in Winnipeg that something was very wrong.

"The rod in my neck had become dislodged," he said. "The bottom two screws started to project into my throat."

After Fletcher underwent more testing in Ottawa and Toronto, the news kept getting worse. The damage to the rod was so bad the C5-C6 vertebrae had broken again.

"There was nothing structural holding my head to my body. Just muscle and ligaments."

The screws from the rod had also created holes in his throat and esophagus.

"It was quite a shock to hear. The doctor used words like 'grave.' "

In January 1996, Fletcher became a quadriplegic after his car collided with a moose while he was driving to a job as a geological engineer in Bissett. Doctors didn't expect him to survive then, but he did, despite the odds.

Fletcher went on to earn his MBA and then became the first quadriplegic elected to the House of Commons in 2004. He was promoted to cabinet in 2008.

Last fall, he fell twice in a short period of time. Once, it was at an event with spinal cord research advocate Rick Hansen. The second time was in the shower.

Likely one or both of those falls caused the titanium rod screwed to the front of his throat to move, but nobody knew it for several weeks.

"I had a bit of a sore throat so I was taking Halls, which sounds kind of ridiculous now," Fletcher said with a grimace.

The problem was discovered in a routine MRI shortly after Christmas and the results relayed to Fletcher on Jan. 6.

His first question was what his odds were of surviving it.

Fletcher's doctors couldn't say because it's a very rare occurrence. So rare, in fact, that the physicians in Winnipeg had never seen it. So he turned to doctors in Ottawa and then Toronto for help.

Fletcher ultimately ended up at Toronto Western Hospital.

On Jan. 19, he underwent a 12-hour surgery. The doctors removed the old titanium rod and replaced it with a much longer rod, this time secured to the back of his neck, not the front. It stretches from the middle of Fletcher's head to the middle of his back.

"If our civilization lasts 1,000 years, my neck will last 1,000 years. It feels better than I can remember," Fletcher said.

He spent several days in the ICU and about 2 1/2 weeks in hospital before returning to Winnipeg.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was one of the first people who Fletcher told of his health crisis. But at that point, Fletcher's doctors were predicting a recovery time of three months to a year. Fletcher publicly reported he was stepping aside from cabinet temporarily on Jan. 16. He did not say when he might return, because he didn't know.

"I recovered much faster than everyone predicted," he said.

One of the reasons Fletcher is going so public with what happened is to push back against some in his own party who seem intent on rousting Fletcher from the Charleswood-St.James-Assiniboia seat to run there themselves.

For months prior to the diagnosis, false rumours persisted in Manitoba that Fletcher was in poor health and was going to step down. That Fletcher says he was unaware of the rumours tells you exactly how close to the truth they really were.

"I want to squash any rumours out there," Fletcher said. "I'm actually better than I was before.

"I couldn't have hoped for a better result."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2012 A8

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