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Olympic Gold Medal Swimmer Amy Van Dyken Rouen Severs Spine in Accident

swimming poolAmy Van Dyken Rouen, a six-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, is in a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona after severing her spine in an all-terrain vehicle accident June 6. In the process, Van Dyken-Rouen, 41, severed her spinal cord at the T11 vertebra.

While driving the vehicle, the Olympic gold medalist hit a curb and was thrown from the driver’s seat. She was not wearing a helmet and had not been drinking.

According to her family, Van Dyken Rouen’s “spinal cord was completely severed at the T11 vertebrae, but, miraculously, a broken vertebrae stopped within millimeters of rupturing her aorta, and she did not suffer any head trauma.”(The full result of the nature of her injury, however, is unknown.)

With an injury at the T11 vertebrae, Van Dyken Rouen will likely suffer lower extremity paralysis, including bladder and bowel function. A ‘complete’ severing means there is no chance of recovering function.

A spinal cord injury (SCI) refers to any injury to the spinal cord that is caused by trauma as opposed to disease. Depending on where the spinal cord and nerve roots are damaged, the symptoms can vary widely, from pain to paralysis to incontinence. Spinal cord injuries are described at various levels of “incomplete”, which can vary from having no effect on the patient to a “complete”, which means a total loss of function. Measurement of injury is characterized using the ASIA (American Spinal Injury Association) Impairment Scale*

Spinal cord injuries occur when blunt physical force damages the vertebrae, ligaments, or disks of the spinal column, causing bruising, crushing, or tearing of spinal cord tissue. Complete cord injury leads to immediate, complete, flaccid paralysis (including loss of anal sphincter tone), loss of all sensation and reflex activity, and autonomic dysfunction below the level of the injury. With incomplete injury, motor and sensory loss may be permanent or temporary depending on the nature of the injury. During a typical year, there are about 11,000 spinal cord injuries in the U.S. Overall, nearly 48% occur in motor vehicle crashes. About 80% of patients are male.

The T11 vertebra is slightly different from the rest of the thoracic vertebrae. It is the second to last vertebra in the middle back, which spans the space between the base of the neck and the bottom of the rib cage. This vertebra is also slightly more susceptible to injury than the rest of the thoracic vertebrae because it is so close to the lower back, and is therefore involved in many of the lower back’s movements. However, doctors say a complete severing of the spine is rare.

Dr. Arien Smith, neurosurgery spine specialist at ANA, has had a lot of experience in dealing with both complete and incomplete spinal injury. There was some debate on the nature of Van Dyken Rouen’s injury as to whether she could regain any lower extremity function. However, according to Dr. Smith, “While I don’t know all the details of this case, it sounds like a complete paralysis with no sensation. Therefore, there is a very poor prognosis of recovery.” While treating similar situations at the Trauma Center at Jersey City Medical Center, Dr. Smith says the goal of any surgery (which Van Dyken Rouen has already undergone) is basically to stabilize the spine. “A surgeon can’t fix anything functionally, but that surgeon usually looks to stabilize any elements causing compression, such as a bone disc. In a scenario in which the injury is incomplete, historically there will be some partial recovery, but not totally. That can’t be predicted,” he added.

The hospital says Van Dyken Rouen will have a SCI “Interdisciplinary” Team, consisting of herself, her husband and family, a physician, rehab nurse and rehab nurse technician, physical therapist, occupational therapist, clinical psychologist, therapeutic recreation specialist, dietitian, clinical care manager, and others. She will be airlifted to her rehab hospital at a yet-to-be determined date.

Van Dyken Rouen became the first U.S. woman to win four gold medals at one Olympics. She overcame asthma to win the 50-meter freestyle and 100 butterfly at the 1996 Olympics. She also was on two winning relay teams. Van Dyken Rouen added two more Olympic relay golds in 2000.

She has lived in Arizona in recent years, working in local radio and later nationally for Fox Sports Radio. She swam for the University of Arizona for two years before transferring back to her home state to attend Colorado State. She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame in 2008.

According to a portion of a statement from her family, “Amy has a long, trying road ahead of her, but as anyone who knows her can attest, her unparalleled mental strength and determination will propel her. She is a fighter. Amy has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles before, winning 6 Olympic gold medals and becoming one of the greatest female athletes of her generation despite battling lifelong chronic asthma.”

Exerts say that athletes in general are healthier than other people, and that those like Van Dyken Rouen are used to working hard towards achieving a goal.

*Learn more about the ASIA impairment scale for classification of spinal cord injuries