Chris' Story

On the morning of March 18th, I kissed my wife goodbye and told her that I’d meet her at a friend’s 40th birthday party that evening.  We had a major snowfall in New Hampshire a few days earlier and I wanted one more ride before snowmobiling season came to a close.

Less than an hour into our trip, I watched the lead rider’s snowmobile hit a heavy bump.  I immediately released the throttle and stood-up to see the cause. There were no markings on the trail and I couldn’t see any debris in my path.  I reached the same obstruction quickly but it was too late. My snowmobile broke through the waterbar that he had hit seconds before me.  The front of my snowmobile was pushed into the culvert and the handlebars were driven deep into my torso.  I lost control of the snowmobile but held on for 75’ before hitting a tree.  I woke up laying in the snow with a good Samaritan standing next to me.  He tried to keep me calm, and immobile, while my riding companion went to find help.  This was the most terrifying moment of my life. I was in tremendous pain and for the first time, could not feel or move my legs.

I was dragged from the snowmobile trail where I waited for a helicopter to transport me to the hospital.  I don’t remember most of the afternoon after I was medevac’d to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital, but woke up with my wife and friends at my side the next day.  I had 6 broken ribs, a punctured lung, lacerated kidney, and two fractures in my spine.  I was surprised to learn about the surgery that repaired my torn aorta, the most significant injury, which was the source of a stroke which caused my paralysis.

In the ICU, I made the decision to fight. Fight for my survival, fight for my family, and fight to walk again. I’ve preached the principles of a positive attitude and self-confidence to my children for many years but have struggled with both throughout my life.  I knew recovery would depend on my ability to live by my own words. 

After 8 days in intensive and critical care units, I made a 3.5-hour ambulance ride to Spaulding Hospital in Boston. On March 27th, I began rehabilitation with an incomplete spinal cord injury (T12). I was nervous and excited about the journey forward. I hadn't ventured away from a hospital bed in more than a week and it was excruciating to sit-up for more than 5 minutes. When I arrived, I could move my toes about ½ inch but the rest of my lower body was frozen. My doctor told me he was extremely optimistic about my recovery and had little doubt that I would walk again. His confidence was contagious and provided the affirmation that I needed to keep a positive attitude.

Eight weeks of in-patient rehabilitation gave me an opportunity to reflect on my life and priorities with minimal distractions.  In addition to physical pain, I had to accept the circumstances of my accident and find a way to move forward.  The team at Spaulding was phenomenal and helped challenge my mind and body to find peace in the recovery process.

I still struggle with dark moments where I’m frustrated by simple acts and the realization I will have to work harder than I did before my accident.  I’m thankful that these times are fleeting and remind me of what helped me get this far: love and support from my friends and family, a vast network of prayer and positive thoughts, a determined focus on long-term goals, and a true appreciation for the hope and potential that others see in you.

I’ve been able to make significant progress since leaving in-patient rehabilitation at the end of May.  I maintain a vigorous exercise schedule that includes traditional physical therapy and an activity-based recovery program called Project Walk.  I left Spaulding walking very short distances using a walker while my physical therapist helped move my legs.  I graduated to forearm crutches in July, and took my first steps without assistance in August.

This experience completely reset my life’s priorities and valuations in a way that would have never happened through day-to-day living.  In many ways, I believe I’m a much more patient, spiritual, and loving person than I was before March 18th.  Not a day will pass without holding my wife and children and thinking “this is why I’m here”.

Chris Wilcox

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