Ryan Campbell (25) had a wonderful life in Australia. He chose to get his pilot's license ahead of his driver's license, and at the age of 19, he flew alone in a small plane around the world. He was the youngest pilot ever to do this. His dream was to become a pilot with Qantas, the Australian airline. Then fate struck.
Ryan made a round trip in an antique plane in 2015. The engine failed and the plane crashed. He survived the accident but lost the feeling in his legs. ‘From the moment I was in the hospital, I was determined to get well’, says Ryan. ‘I wanted to fly again, that was my goal. And to do that, I had to learn to walk again. I was determined, optimistic and perhaps a little naive because there was definitely something broken in my body. Eventually, with a lot of willpower, I learned to walk again but I didn't get back feeling everywhere. I still have no feeling in the front of my foot. I can, therefore, forget about flying a passenger plane. But in a Piper Cub (ed. small aeroplane for two people, made between 1937 and 1947), I can go up in the air. In this aircraft, you brake with your heels. I bought one, and the plane means everything to me. I even moved it from Australia to my new home in America.
After his accident, Ryan also lost his sexual feeling. ‘I expected this to come back – after all, I had learned to walk again – but that was not the case. You can accept this, or you can look for a solution. Via Google, I quickly came across Max Overgoor, a plastic surgeon at your hospital. I read about the TOMAX procedure that he had developed for men with spinal cord injury.’
The procedure is as follows. By connecting the nerve in the groin with the nerve in the penis, many men with a low spinal lesion due to spinal cord injury or spina bifida can feel their penis again. This is because the groin nerve ends higher up in the spinal cord than the penis nerve. Max: ‘About seventy percent get feeling back, and sixty percent say it really helped, but it is different for everyone. For some, it's the sense of feeling that's restored and they realise that the penis is a part of the body, others can more easily maintain an erection or are able to gain greater enjoyment from sex again. Everyone has their own story. I can only do the operation if someone still has feeling in their groin and the spinal cord injury must be quite low in the back. If a patient meets these conditions, the TOMAX procedure can be successful. The nerve of the groin must grow into the nerve of the penis. This is a slow process. If it works, men only get their feeling back after four to six months. In the beginning, it will not feel comfortable, but if you train your brain, your penis may get feeling back. However, the feeling is different to before the accident, but often a step in the direction toward normality. When it comes to patients with spina bifida, the changes in feeling have even more impact because they have never had feeling before.’
Ryan: ‘What I read on the internet sounded promising. So, I wanted to know a bit more about Max and about his surgery and went to see my doctors in Australia. I was stunned that nobody knew of Max Overgoor and the TOMAX procedure. I had to cause a fuss before they contacted him. At first, the idea was that Max would come to Australia, and later operate on me in Seattle because I now live in America. In the end, it took so long that I suggested coming to the Netherlands. I have a girlfriend and want to continue with my future. When the insurance company agreed, it was arranged. Nevertheless, the doctor who did the final tests advised me not to go. It was all in my head and I had to look for help in a different way. Unbelievable! Feeling sexual is so essential. And if you can get it back with this relatively simple procedure, why not? I think a lot of young men with paraplegia or spina bifida would choose this if they knew about it.’
Max: ‘My wish is that someday in every country there will be a doctor who can perform this operation. The procedure itself is not very complicated. I have documented it in detail and a good (plastic) surgeon who regularly operates on nerves can perform the surgery. Recently, a respected plastic surgeon from St. Louis mailed me to say he had performed the surgery. That makes me very happy. I have now operated on 80 men and three women. In women, I connect the groin nerve to the clitoral nerve. The procedure is a little different and we are now going to do further research. Eighty operations in the last ten years are not a lot. Doctors should be aware of it, but they are not. I am reliant on the patients who turn to their doctor as Ryan did. I hope he decides to share his story so that we can help more patients.’
Army in your head
Ryan has now had the operation. According to Max, it went well. Ryan: ‘I never doubted whether I should go to Zwolle. I did ask about the risks associated with the operation. But those were only minimal. Now we wait.’
Back in America, his girlfriend and his job as a commercial helicopter pilot await. ‘I got my helicopter license after my accident. But I can't fly full-time. That is why I am going to give talks about my life and how you can overcome setbacks with an army in your head. Setbacks can fuel your success; I am convinced of that. In the hospitals where I was and in the rehabilitation clinic, attention was mainly paid to the recovery of your body and not your mind. While if you feel good about yourself, your body will follow automatically.’
Ryan is already thinking about his next flight challenge. ‘Preferably something that would surpass my solo flight around the world. I would like to fly in a Spitfire again. And that should also be possible with my handicap because this plane has handbrakes.’