July 9, 2021
First Daniel Chagnon learned to walk. He then learned to ski almost as quickly.
“I’ve been skiing since I was 3 years old,” says Daniel, 22, of Nutley, New Jersey. “My family had a second home in Vermont, so I was always up there skiing. When I was in college, I would ski 30 to 40 days a year. “
On slopes, experience promotes dexterity and skill increases speed. “I’ve been a very aggressive skier all my life. I drive fast, ”continues Daniel, whose speed had always given him a feeling of freedom – until the day it took his freedom.
That day was January 7, 2020. To celebrate his senior year of college at the University of Rhode Island, where he was studying business administration, Daniel planned a cross-country skiing trip with one of his best friends. Together they rode mountains in Colorado and Utah, then Daniel traveled alone to California, where he met his cousin and girlfriend, and then continued his ski sabbatical with them at Mammoth Mountain. There, on the last run of his first day, his ski hit the edge of the snow at exactly the wrong angle.
“I was thrown slightly into the air and turned around at the same time. So I was in the air backwards and was flying very fast, ”recalls Daniel. “I had no control and ended up off the road where I hit a tree and broke my back.”
He also punctured one lung and fractured his right femur, hip, left shoulder, and a few ribs. The worst of all of his wounds, however, was his spinal cord injury, which left him paralyzed below his chest.
“A ski patrol man was behind me and observed the accident,” says Daniel. “I was lying face down in the snow and the very first thing he asked was, ‘Can you move your legs?’ They must be twisted or something. I tried to move it, but I couldn’t. That’s when I started to freak out. “
Persistence and possibility
Daniel was flown to a hospital in Reno, Nevada, where he underwent multiple surgeries and spent 10 days in intensive care. It was then that it began to settle in: he would probably never walk again.
“My 10 days in Reno were mentally tough,” says Daniel. “When your doctors tell you that you will be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, it’s hard to hear.”
Although he had his share of dark moments, Daniel ultimately chose to focus on what he could do rather than what he couldn’t. He returned to New Jersey for inpatient and then outpatient rehabilitation. He finished school and got a full-time job with Joseph M. Sanzari Inc., a construction company he has worked for since high school. Just four months after his injury, he began lifting weights and building his upper body to compensate for his lower body. With the help of a physiotherapist, he learned adaptive walking with braces and a walking aid. In the summer he drove adaptive jet skis, and in the fall he worked five days a week behind the wheel of his own car – an employer-provided workload that he controlled with his hands and adaptive controls.
“With excellent health behavior and intensive physiotherapy, a paraplegic can achieve a high degree of independence, and Mr. Chagnon is an example of what is possible,” says neurologist Florian P. Thomas, MD, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Neurology and Institute for Neuroscience at the Hackensack University Hospital and Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.
Dr. Thomas coordinates an interprofessional team of specialists helping people like Daniel manage the many medical problems often associated with severe spinal cord injuries, from pain and pressure injuries to incontinence and mental health. Spinal cord injury patients can also benefit from a conversation with a health psychologist, who can help build resilience, maintain satisfying partner relationships, adjust emotionally, and optimize health and sleep behavior, says Dr. Thomas.
“A team approach to healthcare is really important because a spinal cord injury presents many unique challenges for the patient and their healthcare team,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of people do not understand what affects a spinal cord injury on blood pressure or the complications to bone, kidney, bladder, sexual function, and liver function. All of these body functions depend on the spinal cord to function. So when the spinal cord stops working, all kinds of bad things can happen. “
Daniel adds: “Dr. Thomas is an incredibly intelligent man and he is very thorough. He’s a really good addition. I love bouncing things off of him – the different workouts I do and things like that. He’s not just a doctor. He is now part of my team. “
Daniel’s team also includes his parents, sister, and girlfriend – who have provided vital physical, mental, and emotional support – as well as his internist, a nutritionist and physical therapist at Project Walk New Jersey, a nonprofit reorganization whose mission is to improve the quality of life to improve for people with paralysis through intensive training without a wheelchair.
“Every day is a struggle, but we all do it together,” says Daniel, whose drive and determination are evident in his tireless commitment to physiotherapy and new treatments, which he would like to support as a volunteer in the clinic whenever he can. Tries. “It took me some time to straighten my head, but having people around me who push me and believe in me has helped so much. This is not the end. I am still me and will continue to lead my best possible life. “
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