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June 8, 2018

A bike crash left a Mayo Clinic physician paralyzed. Here's how he got back to work—and how it changed his relationship with patients.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on May 29, 2019.

    Daniel Grossman, an emergency physician at Mayo Clinic, last year experienced a spinal cord injury that left his lower body paralyzed, but just months after the accident he's back to treating patients, and says being in a wheelchair helps him connect with patients in a way he couldn't before the accident, Jeremy Hobson and Chris Bentley report for WBUR's "Here & Now."

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    The accident

    His memory of the accident is foggy, but Grossman, 37, said it happened last September when he and his friend Ron were mountain biking along the Cuyuna trail system of northern Minnesota.

    "Ron was in front of me and I was following behind him, and the next thing I know I woke up with people around me," Grossman recalled. "I had a weird feeling around my stomach, like a numbness in my mid-abdomen, and I knew that I couldn't feel my legs. So you had this feeling of being disconnected from the world and from your body. And everybody around me was freaking out."

    Grossman was airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he found out he'd sustained a spinal cord injury between his seventh and eighth thoracic vertebrae. The injury left him paralyzed a few inches above his bellybutton. He survived the accident because he was wearing a helmet, Hobson and Bentley report.

    Re-learning how to walk

    Following the accident, Grossman spent four-and-half months in three hospitals to recover and learn how to do basic tasks, such getting in and out of his wheelchair without falling, Hobson and Bentley report. Grossman practiced going from his wheelchair to his bed, his car, the ground, and the toilet.  Falling is particularly dangerous for people who have spinal cord injuries, because it is difficult for them to determine whether they have sustained an injury in the area affected by paralysis.

    Getting back to treating patients

    Just five months after his accident, Grossman returned to work at Bright Health in Minneapolis, the health insurance startup where he is a medical director. Four times a month, he drives an hour and a half from Minneapolis to Rochester, where he takes shifts as an emergency physician at Mayo Clinic. Grossman takes about five minutes to get into his car.

    "I pull up to the car, lock my breaks and then hop in," he said, adding, "These YouTube guys make it look like the simplest thing in the world. What I've learned through all this is life is one big experiment and you just have to figure out what works for you."

    To drive, Grossman uses a system with hand controls. He said, "There's a knob on the wheel that I'm using with my left hand and I'm using the hand controls with my right hand. And now we're just driving like normal."

    Be he started treating patients, Grossman worked with a team to re-learn how to provide care from a wheelchair, Hobson and Bentley report. Grossman said, "When it was time to get back practicing and trying things, we did what's called simulation. We'd take mannequins and we could practice intubating them or doing central lines or doing lumbar punctures, a spinal tap. We also set up patient rooms in the [ED] at Mayo and had mock patients—usually like a friend's kids—so I could learn how to navigate the room."

    According to Grossman, overcoming the physical challenges of returning to the ED were in some ways easier than overcoming the psychological ones. For instance, he sometimes encounters rude patients and patients who have a hard time wrapping their minds around their physician being in a wheelchair, Hobson and Bentley report.

    However, most patients do not seem fazed by Grossman's wheelchair, he said, and several of them find him more relatable.

    "It's ... very clearly broken down barriers with patients, because they know that you have gone through something, and so they're much more willing to listen to you when you offer advice," he said. "When I say, 'I know your life is about to change or is changing today,' they look at me and they know that I know what I'm talking about, and it's pretty emotional."

    Grossman said Robert Brown, a neurologist at Mayo who became paralyzed decades ago, has served as a mentor for him, coaching Grossman on how to navigate life with his spinal cord injury and providing him with practical tips on how to prevent slip-on shoes from falling off.

    Brown said he talked with Grossman "about his transition to the new normal, if you will." Brown added, "The more you're able to appreciate what you're able to do, despite the fact that you're using a wheelchair to get around, as opposed to the things that you can't do or an obstacle in your place, you're going to be much better off and readily be able to work through whatever obstacles might be in front of you."

    In the early months of Grossman's return to Mayo, he would Grossman head upstairs to physical rehabilitation at Mayo's Saint Marys Hospital Mary Brigh Building, where over the course of 64 days he learned how to navigate through life with a wheelchair.

    Grossman said, "I hated being here from the sense of, 'I'm in the hospital,' but it was really good for me. The nursing care is fantastic, the physicians are great and I, at the end of the day, have really positive memories of learning how to get back on my feet, so to speak" (Hobson/Bentley, "Here & Now," WBUR, 6/6).

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