Newswise — After receiving corrective shoulder surgery in February 2019, John Neumaier, M.D., Ph.D., began experiencing shortness of breath and later was diagnosed with diaphragm paralysis.  Determined to continue his active lifestyle he searched for a solution to treat his paralysis and improve his breathing.  The Seattle resident found Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center’s Center for Paralysis and Reconstructive Nerve Surgery and Surgeon Matthew Kaufman, M.D., FACS.

Dr. Neumaier enjoyed skiing, playing tennis, bike riding, but after his rotator cuff surgery, he found that simply bending over to pull weeds would make his breathing difficult. While monitored by his physicians, he waited to see if he would recover naturally but after 18 months, he had not seen improvement.

“If I run up a flight of stairs or dash for a bus, I am out of breath much more than I’ve ever experienced before,” said Dr. Neumaier. “While this problem started after surgery, it has slowly gotten worse and affects me more frequently every day.  At one point, I tried swimming in our neighborhood pool and was gasping for air almost immediately; I knew that I needed to take action.”

“When I learned I had phrenic neuropathy causing my paralysis I reviewed the available medical research, learned about its possible causes, natural course if not treated, and treatment options,” said Dr. Neumaier.  “I came across an article Dr. Kaufman authored outlining various surgical treatment strategies. Since I was not improving, I made an appointment.”

Dr. Kaufman is a pioneer in surgery to reconstruct damaged phrenic nerves, allowing people with diaphragm paralysis from spinal cord injury, as well as others who have isolated phrenic nerve injuries following surgery, similar to Dr. Neumaier, accident, or “wear and tear,” to breathe without a ventilator or breath more easily again. 

“The phrenic nerves control voluntary and involuntary breathing, originate in the neck and extend down to the lower chest, sending electrical impulses from the brain to the diaphragm, the primary muscle involved in breathing,” said Dr. Kaufman.  As a plastic and reconstructive, and head and neck surgeon he understood how to reconstruct facial nerves and treat peripheral nerve injuries.  In 2007, he began applying those skills in innovative ways successfully treating phrenic nerve injuries and diaphragmatic paralysis.

“Depending on the cause of their paralysis, we have successfully enabled an overwhelming majority of our patients to breathe again on their own or resolve their paralysis to improve their breathing, so they can continue being active,” said Dr. Kaufman.  “Some people with phrenic nerve injury have difficulty breathing climbing stairs, while sleeping, or even just tying their shoes.  This surgery can help them return to their regular activities, sleep better and improve quality of life.”

Patients have come to the academic medical center for the surgery from around the U.S., and from countries such as Japan, South Africa, Bolivia, Israel and Australia.  “There are perhaps a handful of other centers in the world that perform phrenic nerve surgery, but none have the experience of Dr. Kaufman and our surgical team as they reach their 500th patient case,” said Kenneth N. Sable, M.D., MBA, FACEP, regional president, Hackensack Meridian Health, Southern Market. “Their expertise is a clear-cut example of how Jersey Shore provides the most advanced medical care, not only in Monmouth and Ocean counties, but across the nation, and in this case, the world.”  

Dr. Kaufman is careful to explain to his patients that recovery can be an extended process, as the phrenic nerve regenerates in some cases and with the specialized course of physical therapy needed to strengthen the diaphragm. “John is an excellent candidate for recovery, he has dedicated himself to following the post-op rehabilitation guidelines so he can resume his active lifestyle,” said Dr. Kaufman.  Dr. Neumaier received the surgery in October, within a few days afterwards he noticed an improvement in his breathing and was able to take a deep breath, something he had not been able to achieve since his shoulder surgery. 

The surgical teams at the Center for Treatment of Paralysis and Reconstructive Nerve Surgery, part of Hackensack Meridian’s Neuroscience Care Transformation Service, are dedicated to enhancing nerve function.  They provide life-altering treatment approaches with reconstructive nerve surgery to help patients who have suffered from stroke, neuropathy, brachial plexus injuries, diaphragm paralysis, and many other conditions regain nerve function.

“This is a wonderful milestone for Dr. Kaufman.  The Center is an important part of the Neuroscience Institute at Jersey Shore, which offers a complete line up of services for spine injuries, concussion, epilepsy, MS, brain tumors, memory and more, as well as the region’s only Stroke Rescue Center,” said Alan Colicchio, M.D., chairman Jersey Shore University Medical Center Neuroscience Institute and medical director, Neuroscience Care Transformation Service, Hackensack Meridian Health, Southern Market.

“I’m extremely proud of Dr. Kaufman’s work and of all the advanced surgical treatments provided by our entire team at the Center for Treatment of Paralysis & Reconstructive Nerve Surgery,” said Vito Buccellato, MPA, LNHA, chief hospital executive, Jersey Shore University Medical Center.  “Collectively, our surgeons and care teams have been able to make such a positive impact improving quality of life for so many patients.”