Beating the Odds after a Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury

Physical therapist helping a woman on crutches.Today, Erica Kovelman is a junior studying advertising and business, walking miles across the expansive Penn State campus each day, getting to and from classes.

Three years ago, a traumatic spinal cord injury could have changed all of that.

Erica was 17 in her senior year of high school, when she was traveling home for an 11:00 p.m. curfew. The driver of the vehicle lost control of the car.

Erica was immediately taken to a hospital close to where the accident happened. She had one surgery to stabilize her injuries before her family chose to have her transferred to Jefferson, a Level 1 Trauma Center with a Model Spinal Cord Injury Center. That evening, the Philadelphia region had its first snow of the season, requiring transportation by ambulance instead of helicopter.

For the next three and half weeks, Erica underwent surgeries for her numerous injuries. Her spine was fused with a rod from the L2 vertebrae to L5. Both ankles were broken; her left was half-fused and her right required multiple screws. She also broke her wrist which was surgically repaired and casted.

When Erica woke up in the ICU after three days of being medically sedated, the medical team told her that she may not walk again due to the spinal cord injury in her back. What the medical team might not have counted on was Erica’s tenacity.

“I was a stubborn patient,” she said.

At Magee Rehabilitation, progress started off slow – learning how to sit up straight and brush her teeth. Erica was frustrated at the start, but when her wrist cast came off she was able to use a wheelchair by herself, increasing her independence.

Erica’s team worked with her to set goals. First on her list was getting back in the gym. The team came up with creative ways to work exercise back into her life.

“Before the accident, I loved to go to the gym,” Erica said. “It was how I relaxed.”

Erica worked hard at rehabilitation and kept up with her schoolwork while at Magee. Later that year, Erica walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma and enrolled at Penn State. Over the next three years, Erica continued to receive physical therapy.

“I’m happy with where I am,” she said. “I stay healthy and work out at least three times a week.” She also stretches to avoid pain and tightness around her injuries.

“And I walk everywhere on campus,” Erica said. “With the help of Jefferson, and then later on to Magee Rehabilitation, I was able to beat every odd put on me.”

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