In September 2018, Robert Wickens, a 29-year-old IndyCar driver, crashed his car into a fence during a race. As a result of the accident, Wickens fractured his spinal cord and sustained many other serious injuries, including a fractured neck, fractured legs and a fracture to one of his arms. The driver, originally from Guelph Ontario, underwent several surgeries to repair his leg and hand fractures, and in late October, the 29-year-old revealed that the accident left him as a paraplegic.
The Humboldt Broncos team bus crash is another highly publicized accident, which occurred in April of this year, and resulted in a debilitating spinal injury for one young man, Ryan Straschnitzki. This terrible accident was also the cause of fatal injuries for 16 players and serious injuries for many others. For Straschinitzki, the devastating injury to his upper back resulted in multiple fractures to his thoracic spine, causing him to be paralyzed from the chest down. The young man underwent a long surgery to realign his vertebrae, remove a ruptured disc and stabilize his spinal column; but doctors don’t believe he will regain any significant function in his lower body.
These tragic accidents reflect the devastating and all-too-frequent outcome for many victims of motor vehicle accidents in Canada. According to a Rick Hansen Institute report published in 2010, there are 4,259 incidents of spinal cord injury in Canada every year. This includes persons who may have died of spinal cord injury before reaching the hospital or while undergoing treatment, as well as those discharged after being injured. Roughly 51 per cent of persons currently living with a spinal cord injury in Canada, sustained their injury in a traumatic event such as a car accident or fall. The remaining 49 per cent of spinal cord injuries result from non-traumatic causes, such as illness.
Spinal cord injury is generally classified as quadriplegia (also known as tetraplegia) or paraplegia. Quadriplegia involves a loss of function and impairment in the arms, trunk, legs and pelvic organs, but excludes the head, limbs, brachial plexus lesions, or injury to peripheral nerves outside the neural canal. With paraplegia, the patient has impairment of their legs, trunk and pelvic organs, but maintains function in their arms.
When an accident victim sustains a traumatic spinal cord injury, they must first undergo acute care in a hospital in order to prevent further damage and determine the full extent of injury. The patient’s medical team will attempt to reduce swelling and compression through medication and surgery, And, depending on the nature of the injury, many patients require traction and bracing, and rods and screws that stabilize the spine for lumber and thoracic injuries. The time required for acute care will depend on the seriousness of the injury.
Following acute care, patients undergo rehabilitation treatments, typically at a rehab clinic. A key goal of rehabilitation is to help the injured person function independently as much as possible given the extent of their injuries. Also, physiotherapy is employed to help regain bodily functions wherever there is potential. Other health specialists who commonly help patients during rehabilitation are: physiatrists (physicians specializing in rehabilitation), physical therapists, psychologists, nurses, rehabilitation counsellors and occupational therapists. In addition to providing needed treatment at the rehab clinic, these specialists help prepare patients for their time at home, although some patients enter a long-term care facility after being discharged from rehab.
After leaving the rehab clinic, persons with spinal cord injury continue to require rehabilitation treatments as well as help with day-to-day function. Patients commonly need help in managing chronic pain; sexual disfunction; potential respiratory problems (due to high susceptibility); bladder and bowel injuries; and often, depression. Patients who are able to live at home typically require at least part-time caregiver support and family members often assume the role of primary caregiver to provide for the care and needs of their loved one. Certainly, both patients and caregivers face a challenging journey and a substantial impact on every aspect of their lives. Spinal cord injuries are generally permanent; however, there are great strides being made in spinal cord treatment and real hope that spinal cord regeneration and repair will be possible in the future for many patients.
It's understandable that victims of spinal cord injury require significant financial, physical and psychological resources in order to manage and pay for their injury and its impact on their lives. The life-time cost of rehabilitation, attendant care, medical aids, pharmaceuticals and lost income are substantial, depending on the age of the patient and severity of injury. And, most persons with spinal cord injury are chronically unemployed. In fact, spinal cord injury is typically one of the most costly injuries for Canadians, in terms of initial and ongoing costs.