By Alyce Collins
THIS PERSONAL TRAINER wanted to travel the world before her leg was MUTILATED by a boat propeller, severing her sciatic nerve, until a life-changing NERVE GRAFT was carried out which miraculously brought back movement.
Personal trainer Danielle Crease (31) from Miami, USA, was on a boat with friends for a weekend trip before she was planning to fly out to Taiwan to become a teacher, but as she climbed off the boat into the water, she was unexpectedly hit by another boat, almost costing Danielle her life.
Danielle remembers little of the accident, which took place in September 2013, but she recalls being tossed around in the water and seeing blood pool around her. When she was pulled out of the water, she immediately noticed that she couldn’t feel her leg.
The boat propeller tore her Achilles, and severed her sciatic nerve, leaving Danielle paralysed from the knee down in her left leg. The wounds on Danielle’s leg were so severe that she required a wound vacuum as the gashes were too deep to heal naturally.
Doctors told Danielle that she may never regain sensation in her leg, but they offered her a possibly life-changing nerve graft, the first of its kind. When she had been brought into the hospital, doctors collected some of Danielle’s sciatic nerve, pre-empting the potential for the surgery.
The nerve was then grown independently, and once approval for the surgery had been granted, the surgeon took nerves from both legs to graft with the sciatic nerve tissue. The surgery was never guaranteed to work, but doctors remained optimistic that if Danielle kept trying to flex her muscles, movement or sensation would one day return.
To her amazement, while sat beside a pool in 2015, Danielle managed to move her foot slightly, which encouraged her not to give up trying. Now, over five years later and sensation hasn’t returned but Danielle has increased her movement gradually.
“On the day of the accident I was out on the water for one last weekend with friends, and it was a beautiful day, with blue skies and blue water,” said Danielle.
“I told my now husband, Jeff, that I wanted to get in the water, so I would meet him in there. Those five minutes would be the defining moments of my life. Within that time, I got hit by another boat.
“I remember being tossed around in the water, almost like being in a washing machine. The next thing I knew I came out of the water and someone asked if I was ok. I looked down at the water into an ocean of blood.
“What happened afterwards is pretty much a blur. I know Jeff was holding my leg together, screaming at me, trying to keep me awake.
“I was brought to a yacht club and vaguely remember being in the ambulance. I just remember saying to my cousin that something was wrong with my leg, I couldn’t feel it. There isn’t much memory after that until right before I went into surgery.
“Apparently the doctors informed my father, who got to the hospital first, that there was little chance I would make it, and things didn’t look good. They essentially told him to say goodbye to me.
“I woke up intubated, with straps around my arms. Apparently, I was fighting the intubation, so I had to be restrained. The first thing I remember from waking up was seeing my parents. I was in and out of consciousness those first few days in the ICU.
“It took me a few days to fully grasp the gravity of what had happened. My leg and bum were huge, gaping wounds. The doctors were very honest about my reality. I still risked losing my leg, and if I did keep it, they couldn’t guarantee I would be able to walk or return to the life I once knew.
“The cut above my knee was so severe, and so deep, it would have never closed on its own. So, they put on a wound vac, which is primarily used in the military for shrapnel wounds. Each time they had to change it, it was beyond excruciating.
“Those first two weeks were the worst weeks of my life, apart from the surgeon asking me to take part in the new nerve surgery. That was the only hope I had to hold on to.
“Recovery included battling depression, with waking up being the worst part of the day. It wasn’t a bad dream, it was real, and I couldn’t escape it. There was a lot of fear for those first few months. I was in a boot, and restricted to a wheelchair, so I didn’t leave the house much.
“A month after the accident, I had a hamstring repair, Achilles repair, quad repair, general leg repair, and the amazing nerve surgery.
“On the day of the accident, my doctor harvested part of my sciatic nerve, in the case I would say yes to the surgery.
“Over the course of the next month he grew my sciatic nerve while we waited for FDA approval. During the surgery, he took sural nerves from both my legs to graft in conjunction with the sciatic nerve tissue.
“It took two years before anything happened. The doctors were always encouraging me to try to move my foot and toes. They explained that I needed to train my mind to not forget how to perform these movements, even if they led to nothing.
“I was laying by the pool in Miami one day and I gave it a try. To my absolute shock and disbelief, it moved slightly. I worked on it all the time after that.”
After regaining some movement in her foot in 2015, Danielle felt encouraged to regain more and used resistance bands to increase the nerve development.
Danielle still has no sensation in her leg and foot but has worked tirelessly on increasing movement. When she first returned to the gym, six months after her accident, she would train without using her left leg, which helped her to see beyond her paralysis.
“If something falls on my foot, I won’t feel it. I’ll have to wear an ankle-foot orthosis, for the rest of my life because of drop foot,” said Danielle.
“There was no way I should have ever had any movement again below the knee, and I do, regardless how small it is. I always knew it was never going to be a complete recovery, but it was going to be a stepping stone for the future.
“Once I regained some movement, I performed plantar flexion with a band, trying to strengthen it with light resistance. Jeff would move my ankle and massage my calf every night, trying to ensure that my ankle didn’t fuse from immobility.
“I also worked on strengthening the muscles I had left, even if they were damaged. I regained about 70 per cent of my quad strength and only 30 per cent of my hamstring strength.
“The accident was both the best and worst thing to ever happen to me. To be honest, I’m not always mad at the accident anymore. I have met some amazing people because of what happened.
“I learned a lot about myself, but I also learned a lot about my family. This didn’t just happen to me, it happened to us.
“Success isn’t in how much movement came back, but that movement came back at all. No matter how small it was.
“Life will inevitably knock us all down, in one capacity or another. But we all have the tools to overcome, because those tools are all within.”
You can see more of Danielle’s recovery by visiting @daniellemcrease