Austin’s Story: Making Waves Following a Spinal Cord Injury - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Published on September 07, 2016

Austin’s Story: Making Waves Following a Spinal Cord Injury

 

For 22-year-old Austin Beggin, the future was looking bright. Following graduation from The Ohio State University, he drove to Florida to vacation with his family prior to starting his first job.

 

On the very first day of the trip, he was seriously injured.

 

“It was a hot day, so I decided to go into the ocean to cool off,” said Austin. “I was a swimmer in high school and felt confident in my abilities. I saw a wave coming and decided to dive into it. Unfortunately, there was a sandbar I didn’t notice.”

 

Austin’s head and neck hit hard on the ocean floor.

 

“At the moment of impact, I knew instantly something was wrong,” he said.

 

Fortunately, Austin’s family saw him struggling and immediately pulled him out of the water. He felt a burning sensation radiating from his neck down the length of his body.

 

“I stayed conscious for the whole thing,” he said. “It was hard to breathe and, even though I felt as though my body was crouched in a ball, I looked down and saw that my arms and legs were spread out.”

 

Austin was immediately flown to a hospital in Tallahassee, Fla., where he underwent six hours of surgery. He was diagnosed with an incomplete spinal cord injury affecting the high-cervical nerves and resulting in paralysis of his arms, hands, trunk and legs. He was placed on a ventilator to breathe.

 

Once stable, Austin’s family was charged with determining where he would go next.

 

“Everyone told me, ‘The sooner you do rehab, the better,’” said Austin.”

 

Austin’s mother, Shelly, began doing research.

 

“One day, Austin’s doctor pulled me aside,” she said. “He told me that we needed to find the best place for treating spinal cord injuries. Hands down, RIC was that place. The more I learned about it, the more I advocated for Austin’s transfer there.”  

 

Austin arrived at RIC in July. There, he underwent intensive physical, speech and occupational therapy. His care team worked to get him out of bed every day and, with therapy, he slowly regained his strength and his breathing improved. Then, Austin’s ventilator was removed — a feat initially deemed highly unlikely.

 

Two months after arriving at RIC, he was talking.

 

“Once Austin started talking, he didn’t stop,” said Shelly. “His spirit and personality were shining through, and he loved to give the nurses a hard time.”

 

Austin also struck an unlikely friendship with his RIC roommate, Dennis. Despite their age difference (Dennis is 70), the two supported each other during therapy.

 

“Watching Dennis go through his journey made my recovery more positive and possible,” said Austin.

 

After nearly four months, Austin was discharged from RIC and returned home to Ohio. There, he continues to make progress by engaging in three days of rehabilitation a week. He navigates with a powered wheelchair driven by his head, and has regained full sensation across his body. He is even starting to make small finger movements.

 

Austin has started painting using his mouth, recently creating a picture of a wave to commemorate his journey. He’s also enjoyed being home with his family and recently traveled back to Chicago to surprise Dennis for his birthday.

 

Amidst all of the activity, Austin is busy brainstorming his next step, whether that’s a return to work or pursuing a degree in speech therapy or counseling.

 

As for the latter consideration, he said, “I never appreciated the power of being in someone else’s shoes. I have a real chance to help people going through the same things I have.”

Austin BegginAustin shares his experience with National Public Radio (NPR)