A University of Florida student’s fate was changed in an unexpected way by a spinal cord injury

Clinical Expertise

Sep 30, 2022

Zach Karpinksi is an exceptional student, leader and mentor at the University of Florida (UF). He was well on his way to a promising career when fate intervened. An undergraduate pursuing his B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Biomolecular Engineering, Zach was riding his scooter when he was hit by a car.

Zach broke his C3 and C4 vertebrae and his jaw, had multiple facial lacerations and his left ear was sliced off in the accident. He doesn’t remember the impact but remembers waking up on his back when the ambulance arrived. He couldn’t move or feel anything from his neck down.

Zach spent the next eight days at UF Health Shands in Gainesville, Fla. Physicians told him and his family that they weren’t sure if he would walk again. There are so many unknowns with spinal cord injuries and it was too soon to tell. They all agreed that he would need intensive therapy and recommended either Brooks Rehabilitation in Jacksonville, Fla. or a facility in Georgia. He and his family ultimately chose Brooks because they were told it was the best for spinal cord injury (SCI) recovery.

Zach defines his time at Brooks in three phases: inpatient care at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital – University Campus; outpatient therapy and the Neuro Recovery Center (NRC); and the Spinal Cord Injury and Related Disorders Day (SCI/D)Treatment program.

“I didn’t realize my injury was as bad as it was. I just thought if I did my therapy and worked hard, I’d be back to normal in no time,” said Zach. Luckily, once he got to Brooks, movement started coming back quickly.

Recognizing that Zach is a competitive person by nature, his therapy team set goals and challenges for him at each session. On his second day at Brooks, they had him out of bed and walking with a support system, so they then set a new goal.

After three weeks in inpatient care, Zach transitioned to outpatient therapy and the NRC. He worked with occupational therapists at the Brooks Healthcare Plaza clinic to improve arm and hand dexterity and also with the Cyberdyne Hybrid Assistive Limb, a robotic exoskeleton to improve walking, at the NRC.

When a space opened up, Zach started the SCI/D Program in May. This specialized outpatient therapy program is overseen by a medical director and the interdisciplinary team includes a physical therapistoccupational therapistspeech therapist, psychologist and a nurse case manager, all with specialized training in spinal cord injuries. Patients in the SCI/D program will participate in half- or full-day treatment for a maximum of five hours a day, five days a week, for an average of 6-12 weeks.

While that intense schedule might be overwhelming for some, Zach was also completing three college classes and a virtual summer internship for an international medical device enterprise when he wasn’t in therapy.

From day one, Zach goal was to walk out of Brooks. On his last day in the SCI/D program, he jogged around the first floor of the hospital. He then flew out to Arizona on his own to give the final presentation for his internship.

“Zach is an inspiration to everyone he meets. He is always so humble and so encouraging to others, said Kat Cunningham, PT, DPT, NCS, SCI/D Program Manager. “He pushed himself every session and achieved so much in the short amount of time at Brooks. When a motivated patient, an encouraging support system and a specialized continuum of care join forces, the impact is monumental.”

The Brooks School Re-entry team was involved with Zach’s case from the time they met with him during his inpatient stay, throughout his time at SCID and after discharge by bridging the gap between the medical team and the Disability Resource Center at UF. BSRP ensured a smooth return to school by walking Zach through the process of getting credits removed that were unexpectedly incomplete and setting up accommodations while he was still focusing on his rehab. This process enabled Zach to return when he was ready, with the best chance for academic success.

Now back at UF to finish his senior year, Zach hopes to work in the pharmaceutical or medical technology industry when he graduates. One day, perhaps future Brooks patients will be using his medical innovations in their recovery.

“I loved all my therapists at Brooks. Every single person I encountered was just as good as the last person. Everyone was so kind and positive. They made therapy enjoyable. I fed into that energy and they kept pushing me to get better,” said Zach.

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