How donated tissue saved a woman’s leg

The gift of donated human tissue meant that Susan Cossabone was able to avoid leg amputation and return to her passion of horseback riding following a devastating accident.

Cossabone will join 27 other float riders from around the country Jan. 2 on the Donate Life float in the Tournament of Roses Parade. The float, now in its ninth year, is a tribute to the millions of people touched by organ, tissue and blood donation.

Cossabone, of New Jersey, always had a gift with horses and a passion for riding. To fulfill that passion, she owned a 10-acre ranch, Hidden View Farm, with 26 horses. Not only did she ride for hours a day, Cossabone also rode competitively, helped retrain difficult horses, and set up an equine summer camp for at-risk and mentally and physically disabled children. Her passion kept her motivated as she managed most of the ranch alone.

This all changed on a snowy day in 2009. Driving home from dropping off a friend, a car slid out of its lane and struck Cossabone’s vehicle head on. Witnesses called 911. Due to winter weather the emergency response was slow and Cossabone’s injuries were grave: on her right leg her kneecap was ripped off, both her tibia and fibula were fractured and her foot was dislocated.

Once at the hospital, Cossabone’s leg was saved with surgically implanted titanium rods. “I hoped I would be able to walk again,” she says.

Despite this hope, Cossabone was told that she could never ride again. As a result of her injury, she had to greatly reduce the number of horses she owned, from 26 to 10. Her summer camp was unable to continue, but the remaining horses were taken care of thanks to generous help from previous campers.

In a heartbreaking development, her injury then became worse; the metal rods in her leg broke and the doctors began to talk about amputation. Cossabone refused to accept that option, but nearly every doctor she saw told her the same thing. She could not walk at all by this point, and spent all of her time in a wheelchair.

Desperate to avoid amputation, she found Dr. Mark Myerson through an Internet search. Describing her initial conversation with Myerson, Cossabone says, “He was the only doctor who did not talk only about amputation. He promised me nothing except his help.” Cossabone did not have the option of a traditional ankle replacement because when the rods in her leg broke, the screws had become imbedded in her ankle, causing even more damage.

In April of 2010, Cossabone began the first of several surgeries with Myerson that would attempt to repair her leg. First her entire ankle was removed and bone cement was added to take the place of missing bone. In the second surgery, Dr. Myerson added bone grafts to the ankle, and in a third surgery he added AlloStem Stem Cell Bone Growth Substitute in an attempt to jumpstart her own body’s reproduction of bone in the injured leg. AlloStem, made by tissue bank AlloSource, uses adult mesenchymal stem cells derived from fat tissue, as well as bone from deceased tissue donors, which helps to stimulate natural bone formation. Cossabone calls AlloStem a “miracle little thing.” Myerson says there were no guarantees that AlloStem would work to regrow the bone in her leg, but by December, bone began to populate in small amounts.

Cossabone was told in January 2011 that her leg no longer risked amputation. Since then, significant bone growth has continued in her injured leg. By spring 2011, Susan was able to have her knee cap replaced and she realized her initial goal, she walked again. In the fall 2011 she triumphantly reached another milestone, she returned to her passion of horseback riding.

“The trip to Dr. Myerson’s office is a five-hour round trip – with no traffic. But I don’t care. I am going to go for two, three, even four opinions before losing a limb,” Cossabone says.