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Staying Afloat

Staying AfloatHow one kayaker almost lost her mobility – but never her spirit – thanks to the skilled team of specialists at Allegheny General Hospital

Four years ago, Jackie Henigin was on an annual kayaking trip with friends on the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle State Park. An experienced kayaker, Jackie was rounding a familiar bend in her kayak when suddenly, something went wrong, resulting in an injury that almost forced her to never kayak – or walk – again.

Jackie, 58, an operating room (OR) nurse at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH), was going down a rapid over a blind curve in the lower section of the Youghiogheny. Ten other people in her group had just coasted through the same turn, but when Jackie came around the bend, she was forced into the rapid, causing her to flip over twice and come crashing down onto a rock.

“As soon as I hit the rock, I heard something pop,” said Jackie. “My hands went numb and I thought to myself, ‘I’m really in trouble here.’”

Trapped inside her kayak upside down, Jackie managed to wiggle out. A few of the kayakers, including her husband, pulled her out of the water. She lay helpless on the rocks as her friends tried desperately to keep her comfortable until help arrived. Because they were in a difficult place for an ambulance to reach, the other kayakers strapped Jackie to a makeshift stretcher and carried her uphill, just as the paramedics arrived.

“I was too cold and scared to think about any pain I was in,” said Jackie. “Since I work at Allegheny General, I yelled, ‘Take me to AGH!’”

Jackie was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, but because she had dislocated her spine, LifeFlight transported her to AGH. There, she ended up in a familiar place: the OR. This time was different, though, as she was the patient.

Jackie was in good hands at AGH. Allegheny General Hospital, which is part of the West Penn Allegheny Health System, offers sophisticated diagnostic and treatment options for traumatic injuries to the musculoskeletal system. Through its Division of Orthopaedic Spine Trauma, a multidisciplinary team of specialists provides trauma, plastic surgery, neurosurgery, vascular surgery and radiology services. Mark A. Fye, MD, Co-Director of the Division of Orthopaedic Spine Trauma and Director of the Division of Spinal Surgery, assumed care of Jackie at AGH.

“I was so upset before going into surgery because I didn’t see my husband and children,” said Jackie. “But Dr. Fye made sure they came in to see me – that’s just the kind of doctor he is.”

Jackie’s family waited anxiously for hours as she underwent surgery. The team of surgeons at AGH used the latest minimally invasive techniques to restore a more normal contour to Jackie’s spine, as well as minimize pain and restore mobility. During surgery, Jackie’s family was updated frequently on her progress, and eventually she made it out of surgery. Amazingly, she was back on her feet that night.

“Jackie was lucky she wasn’t paralyzed,” said Dr. Fye. “She had the worst looking MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) I had seen in 15 years.”

Three days later, Jackie was out of the hospital and spent the next 16 weeks recovering from her frightening accident. Today, she is back in the OR, but this time in the familiar role of nurse. She also doesn’t have any pain.

“I feel so honored and lucky to be where I am today, back on my feet,” said Jackie. “Without the support system of the kayakers, the emergency response people, and the team of incredible doctors and nurses in the trauma center and OR, I don’t think I would have bounced back so quickly.”

As for kayaking, Jackie still does it periodically, but takes things easy. It is still her passion, and thanks to the dedicated team at AGH, she is able to kayak as well as bike, hike and do aerobics.

“AGH not only took care of me, but they took care of my family during the few days I was there,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging, skilled team of professionals. And I wasn’t treated any differently given I work there – I see Dr. Fye treating all of his patients every single day as wonderfully as he did with me.”

“Jackie did great – she has full range of motion in her neck and things continued to get better each day after surgery,” said Dr. Fye. “Treating a patient like Jackie requires a good team working together quickly and efficiently. And if you do it right, the end result can be pretty amazing.”

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