Triathlete shifts focus after crash leaves her paralyzed
On a Wednesday morning in July 2015, Julie Sawchuk was on the home stretch of her 60 km training ride for the Goderich triathlon.
The road, which leads right past the 10 acre property she shares with her husband Theo and their two children just outside of Blyth, was quiet. There was no traffic. Then, out of nowhere, a car drove into the back of her bike.
The driver of the car stopped to help her. He told Julie that he hadn’t seen her. Another driver called 911 and she was taken first to Goderich Hospital and then airlifted to Victoria Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre.
“I don’t remember most of it. I remember speaking a bit at the accident scene. I tried to get up and told the driver that I couldn’t feel my legs,” says Julie.
“I remember getting in the helicopter and it was so loud. For weeks afterwards I could not stand the sound of the helicopters as they came in to land at the hospital.”
Julie sustained significant injuries causing paralysis from the chest down. Incredibly, given her extensive injuries, Julie did not suffer a major head injury and had only a minor concussion.
“The helmet saved my life. The helmet stayed on my head and didn’t break. It was the best $100 I ever spent,” says Julie.
Lead Trauma Hospital
Dr. Parham Rasoulinejad was the spine surgeon on call when Julie was brought to the trauma unit.
“When a big trauma comes in, first call goes to the traumacologist consultant, usually an intensive care physician or a general surgeon. The patient is thoroughly investigated and then the most appropriate specialist teams are called based on the patient’s injuries,” says Dr. Rasoulinejad.
Once the need for an orthopaedic specialist is determined, they will see the patient and view the CT scan that will have already been ordered. The patient will be booked into surgery, in this scenario as an ‘A Case’ (a top priority surgery).
“The goal is first to save the patient’s life, and then improve function,” says Dr. Rasoulinejad. “If a patient has a broken neck, for example, the goal is to fix this as soon as possible to give the patient the best chance of neurological recovery.”
In Julie’s case, her spinal column was fractured and displaced, and a chip of spinal bone was lodged in the spinal cord which runs inside the spinal canal.
Julie had surgery immediately after her arrival and assessment at the trauma bay. Dr. Rasoulinejad and his team fused her spine with rods and screws and removed the fragment of bone from her spinal cord.
After a few days in the critical care trauma unit, Julie was moved to the orthopaedic trauma unit. Here the focus was on recovery, rest, sleep, learning how to get out of bed, and transferring from the bed to a wheelchair.
“For athletes and those in good physical condition, we typically see lower complication rates and faster recovery. They heal faster because their bodies are stronger and better capable to deal with the impact of the trauma and surgery,” says Dr. Rasoulinejad.
Julie’s paralysis resulted from a thoracic, or chest height, spinal injury below which the spine cord controls the regulation of functions such as body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, Julie also had to figure out her new body sensations.
“I remember I felt chilled to the bone and eventually I learned that deep bone chill was my pain response. There is a lot people don’t know about spinal cord injuries, says Julie, a high school biology teacher.
“For example, the bladder and bowels don’t work properly. You have to empty the bladder with a catheter and you have to train your bowels to evacuate. It takes a lot of time to learn.”
Despite her intense rehabilitation work outs, Julie has only recently begun to sweat lightly, and without muscle control, blood pools below the waist and Julie says she easily becomes light headed.
After about 10 days at LHSC, followed by three months of rehabilitation at St. Joseph’s Health Care London’s Parkwood Institute, Julie came home on Oct. 22, 2015. She continues weekly rehabilitation at Parkwood, as well as intensive physiotherapy at home.
“I was given a 10-12 per cent chance that I might walk again. That won’t spontaneously happen. You have to retrain all of those muscles and the only way is try and make those muscles move,” says Julie.
Despite her traumatic injury, Julie’s athleticism shines through. She now has a standing frame which enables her to stand with support and this helps with her blood flow through her organs and lower body.
She also has a stationary bike with electrical stimulators which function to contract the muscles to get her legs to pedal.
“Also swimming has been great. I have gained a lot of independence in the pool. I can do a lot that I can’t do on land, stretch out and moving, it’s freeing.”
It is Julie’s drive to keep going.
“As an athlete it is always to be faster – faster in the water, on the bike, on the run, up the stairs. In every workout the focus is on faster and stronger. I’ve had to change. Now it is not about being faster, it is about lasting longer, being stronger longer. I have to channel it completely differently. But it is still there, that desire to improve, it is just channeled differently,” says Julie.
Although Julie feels too new to this to give advice, she will say that it does get better. As she put it, “It gets better but it’s different.”
“Julie is an inspiration to me,” says Dr. Rasoulinejad. “I too am a cyclist but could never perform at the level that she was in her peak condition. She has been working hard, despite her own personal challenges; she has taken the time to bring public awareness to road safety. She has a strong and determined mind and a very positive attitude.”