Feb 7, 2014, 6:46 PM EDT
Doctors treating legendary Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher at Grenoble University Hospital in France have been forced to take the unusual step of publicly denying his death after a spate of rumors spread across international social media channels such as Twitter.
“The hospital denies that Michael Schumacher has died,” a hospital spokesman said in a statement, according to The Mirror in the U.K.
The seven-time world champion suffered serious brain and other injuries when he crashed into rocks while on a skiing vacation Dec. 29.
Doctors have spent more than a week slowly weaning Schumacher off anesthetic that has kept him in an induced coma and unconscious since shortly after the skiing mishap.
Schumacher is under 24-hour care, continues to receive food through a tube to his stomach, and is breathing with aid of a ventilator because he has been unable to breathe on his own.
While the weaning has gone as planned, doctors are particularly focused on making sure Schumacher does not contract pneumonia, which is a significant risk given that he cannot swallow on his own, allowing saliva to seep into his lungs and cause potential infection that could prove fatal.
“About 30 to 50 percent of all patients who lie in a coma as long as Michael Schumacher has get (pneumonia),” Andreas Pingel, medical director of the Centre for Spine Surgery and Neuro-Traumatology at BG Hospital in Germany told Focus Magazine.
The Mirror also reported Schumacher’s “blood is also thinned to prevent thrombosis and he is regularly turned and even stood straight up at times to keep blood flowing. He lies on a special air-filled mattress to prevent pressure sores and his urinary tract is under constant scrutiny because of the danger of waste bacteria entering the bloodstream and causing a potentially fatal infection.”
One bit of good news is that Schumacher’s age (45) and excellent physical condition will be a big help as his recovery continues. The biggest key is to eventually bring him out of the coma.
“(Schumacher’s brain cells will be) working together like a Formula One team,” neurosurgeon Dr. Munther Sabarini told The Mirror. “So if a driver shows weakness, then another driver takes over under the new situation. So it is with the brain cells.
“You can support brain function with a lot of resources so the healing process is accelerated and causes as little damage as possible. Typically high-energy bodily functions are shut down during a coma. Only after awakening can they be enabled again. The vital signs are observed and corrected.
“It is then up to the doctors to do a great deal; physiotherapy, mental care, treatment of new or old diseases. Depending on the aid required the patient receives medication – usually called neuro vitamins – but the measures applied vary strongly from case to case.
“After awakening one needs a few months to a few years to learn to overcome physical changes. Young and healthy people like Schumacher have better chances to recover from such a trauma.”
Friday’s news, the death rumors notwithstanding, was more positive than a Thursday report in The Mirror that claimed Schumacher could regress into a permanent vegetative state once he awakes from the induced coma.
“There is unfortunately the risk that in sneaking out of a deep artificial sleep the patient is then in a waking coma,” Hamburg professor Heinzpeter Moeck told The Mirror. “This could mean a permanent vegetative state where Schumacher would effectively be paralyzed.”
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