Nutley, New Jersey, Man Discovers His Resilience After Tragic Skiing Accident

July 9, 2021

First, Daniel Chagnon learned to walk. Then, almost as quickly, he learned to ski.

“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. In college, when I had time, I was skiing 30 to 40 days a year.”

On slopes, experience breeds skill, and skill breeds speed. “My whole life I’ve been a very aggressive skier. I ski fast,” continues Daniel, whose velocity had always made him feel free—until the day it took his freedom away.

That day was Jan. 7, 2020. To celebrate his last year of college at the University of Rhode Island, where he studied business entrepreneurship, Daniel planned a cross-country ski trip with one of his best friends. Together, they skied mountains in Colorado and Utah, after which Daniel journeyed solo to California, where he met his cousin and his girlfriend, then continued his skiing sabbatical with them at Mammoth Mountain. There, on the final run of his first day, his ski caught the edge of the snow at exactly the wrong angle.

“I got tossed in the air slightly and turned around simultaneously. So I was in the air backward, going really fast,” Daniel recalls. “I had no control and ended up off the trail, where I hit a tree and broke my back.”

He also punctured a lung and broke his right femur, hip, left shoulder and a couple of ribs. Of all his wounds, however, the most serious was his spinal cord injury, which left him paralyzed below the chest.

“A ski patrol guy was behind me and watched the accident happen,” Daniel says. “I was face down in the snow and the very first thing he asked me was, ‘Can you move your legs?’ They must have been twisted up or something. I tried to move them and couldn’t. That’s when I started freaking out.”

Daniel Chagnon_hospital

Persistence and Possibility

Daniel was airlifted to a hospital in Reno, Nevada, where he underwent several operations and spent 10 days in the intensive care unit. During that time, it began to settle in: He would probably never walk again.

“My 10 days in Reno was rough mentally,” Daniel says. “When your doctors tell you that you’re going to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair, that’s hard to hear.”

Although he’s had his share of dark moments, Daniel ultimately decided to focus on what he could do instead of what he couldn’t. He returned home 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 that he’s worked for since high school. Just four months after his injury, he began lifting weights, building his upper body in order to compensate for his lower body. With the help of a physical therapist, he learned to engage in adaptive walking using braces and a walker. By summer he was riding adaptive jet skis, and by fall he was working five days a week behind the wheel of his own car—an employer-provided work truck that he drives with his hands using adaptive controls.

 

Daniel Chagnon and girlfriend

“With excellent health behavior and intensive physical therapy, a person with paraplegia can achieve a great degree of independence, and Mr. Chagnon is an example of what is possible,” says neurologist Florian P. Thomas, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience Institute at Hackensack University Medical Center and Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.

Dr. Thomas coordinates an interprofessional team of specialists who help people like Daniel manage the litany of medical issues that often accompany serious spinal cord injuries, including everything from pain and pressure injuries to incontinence and mental health. Spinal cord injury patients can also benefit from talking to a health psychologist who can help foster resilience, maintain satisfying partner relations, adjust emotionally, and optimize health and sleep behavior, Dr. Thomas says.

“A team approach to health care is really important because a spinal cord injury brings with it many unique challenges for the patient and their health care team,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of people don’t understand what a spinal cord injury can do to blood pressure, or the complications for bone, kidney and bladder function, sexual function and liver function. All of these bodily functions depend on the spinal cord to work. So if the spinal cord no longer functions, all kinds of bad things can happen.”

Adds Daniel: “Dr. Thomas is an incredibly smart man, and he’s very thorough. He’s a really good asset. I love bouncing things off him—the various workouts I’m doing and things like that. He isn’t just a doctor. He’s part of my team now.”

Also on Daniel’s team are his parents, sister and girlfriend—who have provided crucial physical, mental and emotional support—as well as his internist, a dietitian and physical therapists at Project Walk New Jersey, a nonprofit reorganization whose mission is improving quality of life for people with paralysis by way of intense, wheelchair-free exercise.

“Every day is a battle, but we’re all doing it together,” says Daniel, whose drive and determination are evident in his tireless commitment to physical therapy and emerging treatments, which he plans to support whenever he can as a volunteer in clinical trials. “It took me some time to get my head right, but having people around me to push me and believe in me has helped so much. This isn’t the end. I’m still me, and I’m going to keep living my best possible life.”

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