Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Teen athlete and SCI survivor back in the game

February 04, 2020

A sledding accident instilled Ethan Newell with a newfound appreciation for life. On Jan. 19, 2019, Ethan jumped on his tobaggon and raced down a snow-packed hill in Ames, Iowa. His sled hit a bump, sending the then-17-year-old airborne. A crash landing flipped him backwards, slamming his neck against the frozen ground.

“Instantly, I lost all feeling to my body,” Ethan said. Years of lifeguard training kicked in as the teen warned his friends not to move him and to call 911 and his parents. Ethan’s father sensed the fear in his son’s voice: “Dad, I think I’ve broken my neck.”

Surgeons at MercyOne Des Moines Medical Center confirmed the trauma had shattered Ethan’s C5 spinal vertebrae and operated to repair the damage. Losing mobility and use of his hands devastated the football and track athlete, who spent 11 days in the intensive care unit. Hope began the morning after Ethan arrived at Madonna’s Lincoln Campus pediatric unit when, flanked by his therapists, he stood. “Ethan sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury meaning some signals were still passing up and down his spinal cord at the level of injury,” explained Dr. Adam Kafka, medical director, Lincoln Campus rehabilitation hospital.

Ethan applied the discipline from his sports training to rehabilitation. His game plan included rigorous physical, occupational, recreational and aquatic sessions. The EksoGT and AlterG Bionic Leg, computerized, wearable technology, targeted Ethan’s lower-extremity weakness. Cooking in the therapy kitchen strengthened his fine motor skills and mastering the driving simulator restored his confidence behind the wheel. On March 28, Ethan walked out the doors of Madonna to a hero’s welcome on returning to school in Gilbert, Iowa. More victories followed—dancing at prom, a beach run during vacation and lifting weights with his friends again. Rejoining his football team in a support role was monumental. “That’s when I knew I had come back from something that could have been a very different outcome,” Ethan said. He’s excited for track season, May graduation and says college plans will stay true to his Iowa roots.

A silver cross hangs around Ethan’s neck, a gift from his parents, worn throughout his lengthy recovery. “You’ve got to have faith to get through something this traumatic.”

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