After a traumatic accident, a family finds that life can change in an instant

It was late when the phone rang, and it shattered the quiet of a summer evening. Mary Mohagen wasn’t expecting a call; her husband, Marc, was playing ice hockey with friends, and their three teenage children were at home. Startled, she picked up. It was a paramedic. Marc had been injured, the paramedic said, and they were taking him to Harborview Medical Center. She could meet him there.

“Marc has been hurt at hockey before and still drove himself home, so I knew this was bad,” says Mary. In shock, she rushed to the hospital. When she arrived, two of Marc’s teammates took her to the emergency room.

She hadn’t yet realized that the call had drawn a thin line through her life, dividing it forever into “before” and “after.”

The Thin Line

The ice rink where Marc plays is friendly and loud; players bang their sticks on the gate when they walk on or off the ice, and every time a puck slams into the wall, the impact makes the boards shudder. It’s chilly, even in summer, and the smells of refrigerant and decades of sweat hang in the air. The players love it.

“I wouldn’t give up Monday nights for anything,” says David Strand, PhD, one of Marc’s teammates. “It’s not just playing hockey — it’s the camaraderie, it’s the fact that we know each other and we’ll see each other next week.”

Familiar as it is, stepping onto the ice is always an otherworldly moment, says Strand. Gliding smoothly on his skates, he becomes sharply attuned to his surroundings and fully present in his body. “You have to focus on the gestalt,” he says. “Where are the players going? Where does the flow of the game seem to be headed, and how do I fit into that?”

But make no mistake: This game is fast-paced and intense. “Everybody is crammed into a pretty small space,” Strand says. “You’re trying to maneuver around the opposing team while moving the puck with a stick that’s four or five feet long. It’s all happening quickly, and you have to be able to react in a split second.”

That night, their time was up, but it was a close game and the Zamboni driver let them play a little longer. As the seconds ticked down, the competition grew intense.

Marc and Strand lunged for the puck at the same instant, about seven feet from the wall. It took a split second for the blades of their skates to lock, and the momentum sent Marc headfirst into the unforgiving concrete that rings the rink. As Strand watched in horror, Marc hit the boards headfirst and dropped, limp, onto the ice.

“I knew to hold his head and neck steady,” says Strand, a vocational rehabilitation counselor at Harborview. Someone checked for a pulse. Someone else called 911.

Kneeling on the ice, stabilizing his friend’s helmeted head, Strand’s mind whirled. “All I could focus on was making sure that no more damage was done, and praying,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if he’s going to walk his daughters down the aisle, I don’t know if he’s ever going to throw a baseball with his son again.’ All of these things are flooding through my head.”

In minutes, Marc was on his way to Harborview in an ambulance, sedated, intubated and wearing a cervical collar. No one knew whether he’d survive — or, if he did, what survival might look like.

The call had drawn a thin line through her life, dividing it forever into “before” and “after.”

At Harborview’s emergency room, the first priority was to stabilize Marc to prevent further injury. Three days later, with the swelling reduced, he was ready for surgery. But faculty and family wouldn’t know until afterward if Marc had suffered other setbacks.

“Because of the force involved, the surgeon was concerned about possible brain damage,” says Mary.

Marc had six broken vertebrae, including C2, the same break that left actor Christopher Reeve paralyzed. C2 fractures aren’t uncommon, notes Marc’s surgeon, Richard Bransford, MD, Res. ’01, Fel. ’02, Fel. ’03, professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the UW School of Medicine. But Marc, at 57, was several decades younger and much more active than the typical patient.

For older patients, the standard procedure is to fuse the C1 and C2 vertebrae together. Instead, to help preserve Marc’s ability to rotate his head, Bransford installed an odontoid screw. “It’s one of the very few spine surgeries where we can fix a bone without having to fuse bones together,” says Bransford. At Harborview, there might be only five or six such surgeries in a year.

After 10 days in intensive care, Marc was transferred to Harborview’s inpatient rehab unit. The screw placement was the only surgery he would have to repair his spine; the other fractures would be left to heal on their own. Thankfully, there was no brain damage. That said, his recovery was just beginning — and it would require plenty of hard work.

In rehab, the seriousness of Marc’s accident hit home. “I didn’t ask about my prognosis at first, because I was a little afraid of what it would be,” he says. “Two people can have the same spinal cord injury and get totally different outcomes, depending on how their body heals.”

Right after the operation, Marc needed help with even basic movements: rolling over, sitting up. Walking was out of the question. Still, he was already looking to the future.

“When Marc woke up after surgery, the first thing he said was, ‘What happened?’” says Mary. “The second thing out of his mouth was, ‘When can I play hockey again?’”

Marc had ambitious goals and the drive to match, and his Harborview therapists were ready to help. “They said if you’re optimistic and willing to work hard, you’re going to get the best results,” he says.

A typical day in Harborview rehab includes at least four hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy. Therapists also help patients translate skills to real-world activities. For example, going out for coffee might involve climbing stairs, opening doors and holding a cup.

“We individualize our approach to each patient,” says Maggie Goldberg, DPT, CSRS, an inpatient physical therapist. “We discuss a patient’s goals, what they want to get out of therapy and how we can get there. So it’s wonderful to see someone like Marc, who’s very motivated but also realistic about the steps he had to take.”

Marc had to relearn how to feed himself, brush his teeth and get dressed. Walking took longer: He started out in a harness on a treadmill, then graduated to a walker before finally taking his first unaided steps. “I’m so thankful for my therapists,” he says. “They did a really good job of keeping me on track and helping me progress to the next level.”

After a month, Marc went home with a wheelchair and a walker. But he won’t soon forget how Harborview helped him — and others.

“From the nurses to the doctors, the physical therapists and the occupational therapists, my care at Harborview was great,” says Marc. “We saw people from all walks of life there, many of them with no insurance, and they were getting the same treatment that I was. I think that’s pretty powerful.”

“Harborview saved Marc’s life, and we’re thankful every day.”

Just over a year after the accident, Marc has made an astonishing recovery. He walks on his own, with an almost imperceptible limp. He’s back at work. He even hopes to play hockey again.

Marc’s family treasures each day together. They know how different his “after” could have been — part of what prompted their attendance at a recent fundraiser for Harborview Medical Center. “Harborview saved Marc’s life, and we’re thankful every day,” says Mary.

“I never thought I would need Harborview,” says Marc. “But when I did, they were there to help me get back on my feet.”

By Stephanie Perry
Photos: Kollin O’Dannel

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Harborview Medical Center provides world-class healthcare to people from all walks of life.