American Society of Plastic Surgeons
For Medical Professionals

Plastic surgery helps quadriplegic man continue his life's mission

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to go from being a 19-year-old college football player who could do practically anything he wanted physically, to being unable to move. This became Marc Buoniconti's harsh reality after he collided with another player, dislocated his neck and sustained a spinal cord injury in a third-down play in 1985.

"I remember that play like it was yesterday," said Buoniconti. "They pitched it to the running back, and I was running him down. And it was like, boom. We both hit, and unfortunately, I didn't get up. And that's when I found myself a quadriplegic, literally fighting for my life. And I knew my life had changed forever."

Suddenly, the athlete whose identity was tied to his physical abilities was faced with the difficult task of learning how to live as a person with quadriplegia. This diagnosis was difficult for Buoniconti to accept, and he held onto hope for a cure.

Working for a cure

"I am fortunate to be the son of Nick Buoniconti, an NFL Hall of Famer," said Buoniconti. "My dad made it his life's mission to find a cure for paralysis by putting together the best scientists under one roof and fund them until they found a cure."

Buoniconti's dad teamed up with world-renowned neurosurgeon Barth A. Green, MD, to create the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. According to the organization's website, its vision is to develop treatments and therapies that can be given to patients at various phases of injury that complement each other and maximize protective and reparative mechanisms.

Carrying on the mission

Buoniconti's dad died in 2019, after three decades of championing his organization, which has raised close to $500 million for brain and spinal cord research, according to a New York Times obituary.

"I have taken on his promise. As president of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and the Buoniconti Fund, we are dedicated and committed to delivering on my dad's promise to find a cure," Buoniconti said.

Needing plastic surgery

While serving as president of the organization, doctors gave Buoniconti bad news a year after his dad's death – he had internal bleeding.

"They had no other choice but to open it up, get rid of all the old blood and all the old, coagulated blood, and I was left with a gaping hole," said Buoniconti.

To close this hole and return his body to its previous state, he needed the skilled hands of a plastic surgeon, and Buoniconti turned to Devinder Singh, MD, for help.

"When I met Mark, he had already been in the hospital for four months with a difficult-to-treat wound, and I recommended a gracilis muscle flap and transferred that flap from his medial thigh into the problem area," said Singh. "And this was a very successful operation, and it did help to solve Mark's problem."

The gracilis is a thin, long muscle that's used as a workhorse flap in reconstructive surgery. It works as a functional muscle transplant and a covering for wounds.

Getting back to normal

Buoniconti said the successful plastic surgery with the gracilis muscle flap has allowed him to resume his regular duties for the Miami Project, and he is back to his normal levels of productivity in his personal life.

"What I think makes Marc Buoniconti stand out is the triumph over adversity," said Singh. "Just the staggering journey that he has taken overcoming such a difficult diagnosis as quadriplegia and then turning that into one of the most positive outcomes anyone can imagine. And a real genuine commitment to curing paralysis and inspiring people around the world that paralysis is not forever."

Buoniconti continues to lead the Miami Project in its mission to find a cure for paralysis. In a recent 'Message from the President' website post, he praised the organization for its novel clinical programs and research advancements as it continues the work that his dad began 36 years ago after Buoniconti, his son, was paralyzed on a football field.

"I think my dad would be so proud of everything that we have been able to accomplish," Buoniconti said in the website post. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about the last moments I spent with him. He looked me in the eyes and made me promise never to give up until a cure is found."


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