Former Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen is recovering following surgery to stabilize her spine after her spinal cord was severed at the T-11 vertebra during an all-terrain vehicle accident in Scottsdale, Arizona last week.

The latest report is that she is out of ICU and looking forward to rehab in Denver. Demonstrating a resilient spirit like most of the spinal cord injury survivors we have represented.

Following the accident, the 41 year-old six-time Olympic gold medalist told emergency personnel she had no feeling in her legs or toes, according to The Associated Press, which reported that she severed her spine. She is said to be in good condition despite the seriousness of her injury.

Her husband, Tom Rouen, a punter for the Denver Broncos pro football team, said they are unsure whether she will be able to walk again, and are taking it “day by day.”

Undoubtedly her athleticism will aid her recovery, both physically and mentally. The grit and discipline developed in becoming an Olympic champion will serve her well in the rigors of rehab. Even if she does not walk again, I look forward to seeing her compete in a future Paralympics.

Coincidentally, this week a paraplegic equipped with a brain-controlled exoskeleton kicked off the World Cup soccer competition in Brazil.

The injury occurred when Van Dyken-Rouen struck a curb while riding the ATV in a parking lot outside of a restaurant. The impact sent her over a five- to seven-foot drop-off according to a police report, and she was not wearing a helmet at the time. She was found unresponsive and had to be airlifted to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn Medical Center.

According to a letter from her family, Van Dyken-Rouen severed her spine at the T11 vertebrae, which came just a few millimeters from potentially rupturing her aorta.

Perhaps the worst physical injury one can suffer is damage to the spinal cord. The most prominent example is Christopher Reeve, who one day was “Superman” and the next was a quadriplegic.  We see some of our clients who have spinal cord injuries as super men and women too.

With our convenient to both the Shepherd Center and Emory, two of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the nation, we are often called by family members of spinal cord injury victims.   In working with people who have such injuries, we have been inspired by the resilience of the human spirit. Both physical and emotional aspects of spinal cord injury are devastating. However, one may work through the depression accompanying spinal cord injury to see that even under such adverse circumstances sometimes still the “glass is half full.”

Although most people know this type of injury can be a devastating diagnosis, not everyone knows there are many different types of spinal cord injuries. The location of the injury along the spinal cord determines what parts of the body are affected. Different types of spinal cord injuries include:

  • Cervical Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae C1-C8 and causes paralysis or weakness in both arms and legs. This is also known as quadriplegia or tetraplegia.
  • Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae T1-T12. These injuries can cause paralysis or weakness of the legs along with loss of physical sensation, bowel, bladder and sexual function.
  • Lumbar Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae L1-L5 and result in weakness or paralysis of the legs. This is also known as paraplegia.
  • Sacral Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae S1-S5. Sacral level injuries mainly cause loss of bowel and bladder function as well as sexual dysfunction. They can also cause weakness of paralysis of the hips and legs.

Injuries can also be complete or incomplete. Complete injuries are indicated by a total lack of sensory and motor function below the level of injury, whereas incomplete injuries are marked by some remaining sensation and movement.

While much is taken, often much remains. Many people with spinal cord injuries surmount extreme adversity to lead productive lives. Jim Langevin became a quadriplegic at 16, and is now a Congressman from Rhode Island. Brooke Ellison has been a vent-dependent quad since age 11, but graduated from Harvard with honors. One of our spinal cord injury clients became Ms. Wheelchair California, did adaptive surfing with a movie star, and works with Free Wheelchair Mission providing wheelchairs for people in third world countries. While these are exceptional people, they illustrate the fact that a useful life is still possible after spinal cord injury.

Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice.  His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on representation of plaintiffs in cases of castastrophic personal injury and wrongful death.