Trauma patient recovers and returns to the beach

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“A classic two titans. Both heavy-duty diesels.”

More than two years after the fact, this is how Don describes the impact of the car accident that nearly took his life.

In October 2017, driving up Northbound Gratiot in his truck a little before 6 a.m., Don noticed the headlights of another truck traveling southbound. They shuddered, swerved into his lane and then collided head-on.

What Don remembers from the crash scene: “I was in and out of it. Someone called an ambulance because I could hear it coming. I was soaked in gasoline. A fireman wondered where it came from. I said I had a can in the bed.”

That was the last truly conscious thought Don had before waking up in the ICU at McLaren Macomb six days later.

“I woke up, and I saw two metal bars attached to my hips and soft casts — one on each leg, covering my ankles and feet,” he said. “My whole body was numb from my toes to my head.”

The tremendous impact snapped Don’s pelvis in half, and left him with a broken right tibia and fibula, broken left foot, several broken ribs and additional injuries.

Extensive blood loss also required the need for 36 units of blood. The broken pelvis was especially worrisome as it’s the bone’s stability that is vital in order to properly sit, stand and walk. “The initial evaluation of Don’s case was very serious,” said Dr. Christopher Vitale, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at McLaren Macomb. “And in terms of his long-term recovery and being able to walk normally again, we had reasons to be quite concerned.”


Dr. Vitale, as a fellowship-trained surgeon in his field, is uniquely trained and experienced to reconstruct these delicate fractures of the pelvis. Through a series of complex surgeries, he was able to reconstruct Don’s injuries, which would also include a spinal fusion to stabilize a fracture of the lower portion of the spine.

Don would be in the hospital for five weeks before actively beginning his rehabilitation.

“It was hard,” he said. “All the muscles in my legs were weak.”

He recalls when he first stood unassisted on his surgically repaired ankles. From a sitting position, he stood with the support of a walker. He did a 360-degree turn. Then he sat back down because he could not stand anymore.

“My ankles were still not strong enough,” he said. Don now had his starting point. From there, he would carry an ever-determined attitude and commit to progressing in his rehab.

He also had a goal — to go for a run on Lido Beach outside his and wife Sandra’s timeshare in Sarasota, Fla.

“My goal was to be on the beach in May,” Don said, “and you can’t accomplish a goal if you don’t truly think you can get there.” With his trip to the beach occurring mere months after his body was broken in the crash (they spend Aprils in Florida), he shared his goal with Dr. Vitale.

Dr. Vitale’s response: “Send me a picture.”

On the beach

At 60, Don knew his recovery would take time … and effort.

A day after he wasn’t able to stand a length of time, Don stood again and walked 70 feet. The next day, 500 feet.

By the time he arrived in Florida, he had been walking for four weeks.

He continued to build up his strength with walks on the beach sand and climbing stair steps.

Then, with the memories of his crash and surgeries still fresh in his mind, Don put a little more hustle in his steps and broke into a jog.

“It was a slow jog, not much of a run,” he said. “But still a run.”

Says Dr. Vitale, “I was — and continue to be — very impressed with Don and his determination during his rehabilitation. His injuries were devastating, and to see where he is now is nothing short of incredible.”

Returning to Michigan, Don continued his rehab, adding two-mile swims to his routine. And when April arrived the following spring, Don returned to the Florida beach and his 16-foot sailboat.

About 18 months removed from his accident and into his recovery, Don towed that boat out to the water by hoisting the front of it across his shoulders onto its beach wheels, taking it to the water.

Dragging the boat was no longer an option.

Pictures were sent to Dr. Vitale.


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