Nick’s Fearless Road to Walking Again

By Matt Martin

Nick Burton wondered if he’d ever be able to walk again after what happened on May 26, 2019.

During a Memorial Day weekend celebration, he accidentally landed headfirst in the bottom of a swimming pool. He immediately wasn’t able to feel anything below his neck. Friends had to help get him out of the pool.

“I sat there and started panicking. I wondered if I was going to be pulled out of the pool and live,” Nick, the 27-year-old from Ft. Thomas, Kentucky said.

An ambulance transported Nick to University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Friends and family rushed over to meet him there. His mother, Mary, was worried the most.

“The unknown is stressful. Would he be able to walk again? Would I need to quit work to take care of him for the rest of his life?” Mary said.

Nick would go into surgery the following morning. He had a spinal cord injury with broken vertebrae. Surgeons had to relieve pressure on his spinal cord and put screws in to stabilize the spine. He spent 10 days in the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit (NSICU).

The Neurotrauma Center and Back, Neck & Spine Center at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute offer innovative, best-in-class care for complex back, neck and spine conditions from an internationally recognized team of experts.

Nick’s surgery was performed by Laura B. Ngwenya, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the UC College of Medicine and director of the Neurotrauma Center at UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute.

“When Nick arrived, we knew he needed a decompression and fixation surgery as soon as possible,” Dr. Ngwenya said. “Even though we knew we were providing the best care, it was hard to predict how he would recover.”

Although Mary was fearful throughout Nick’s entire stay in the NSICU, she was comforted by his positive care team. His two physical therapists were constantly upbeat and motivating.

Nick would continue his recovery journey at the Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care. He also did outpatient rehabilitation at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute. Recovery was tough for him both physically and mentally.

“It hasn’t been an easy ride, but I’ve had the greatest support from friends and family,” Nick said.

Around four weeks after his surgery, Nick was able to walk with the assistance of his walker. He couldn’t wait to tell everyone when he got home. The moment was emotional for Nick and his mother.

“It made me cry,” Mary said. “I was so happy to see him up on his feet. It was uplifting to see.”

Since then, the road has remained difficult for Nick, but he’s been perseverant and fearless. He wants to be an inspiration to others with spinal injuries. On Dec. 18, 2019, Nick and his mother returned to the NSICU to reunite with his care team who had a powerful impact on his life.

“He wanted to thank everyone for the good care he got, but also to show what that care can lead to with a little hard work,” Mary said. “Even many of the staff were in tears because they were in shock to see him walking.”

Nick will need to continue to work hard to return to the life he had before his injury, but with the support from his friends, family and UC Health care team, he’s confident that he will make even more progress moving forward.

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