Life can change in the blink of an eye. Small acts of kindness can mean the most. It takes a village…
Pick the cliché and it is likely that Dr. Dan Via has a new appreciation for how deeply those commonly used phrases can be felt. The Williamsburg pediatrician was enjoying a vacation with his family in the Outer Banks of North Carolina when the very active 52 year-old caught a wave and fell off his boogie board head first into shallow water. His spinal cord injury left him unable to move. He was saved by some strangers on the beach who pulled him from the water. He was able to breathe on his own and he never lost consciousness, so he was able to speak and answer questions. But Via knew he could also not feel anything or move any parts of his body.
Life can change in the blink of an eye.
Local EMS responded and Via was flown by Nightingale Regional Air Ambulance from a fire station in North Carolina to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital for trauma care. Surgeons determined that he had disrupted ligaments and ruptured a disc between C3 and C4 of his spine. He had surgery to fuse his spine at C3 & 4, but the severe nature of his injury and bruising of his spinal cord left physicians unsure about Via’s prognosis. Via recalls hearing doctors talk about, “maybe being able to feed himself or possibly learn to walk again.” That is a tough reality for someone with a thriving pediatric medical practice, a wife and teenage children, and an active lifestyle that included cycling and teaching music.
In the weeks and months that followed, Via graduated from the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and step down care at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital to a rehabilitation unit at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, then a rehabilitation center in Richmond and finally a month long stay at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
Small acts of kindness can mean the most.
“The nurses and the caregivers in the ICU and CCU at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital were some of the first people to give me real hope that I might recover,” recalls Via, who says that this experience has given him a new appreciation for all the professionals in healthcare – from physicians to nurses and aides.
Via decided early on to be open to advice and suggestions at every stage of his journey. A change of attitude for someone who is used to being in the driver’s seat, Via attributes his successful and continuing recovery to the optimism, inspiration and encouragement of those around him. In what he describes as a “whole new level of helplessness,” Via was touched by the many healthcare staff, family, friends and patient families that were there to lend support.
It takes a village.
Support came in many forms. Via’s wife, a professor at William & Mary, took the fall semester off in order to help with his care. He describes her attitude as doggedly determined to stay positive about his recovery. Via received letters, cards, gifts and prayers from colleagues, friends and patients. While in Atlanta for additional treatment, Via recalls the tremendous support that came from other patients. Sharing a common bond allowed them to offer encouragement and support as they worked through recovery together.
Via began to get some movement back in his fingers and toes in the weeks following his surgery, which served as a promising sign of recovery. About one month after his accident, when he was a patient at VCU he began to feed himself with the use of a splint. He also endured long therapy sessions where he was helped upright by the use of devices that could bear at first all of his weight, and then gradually help support him as his strength and feeling began to return to his arms and legs. Eventually, there were brief sessions of walking with a walker which has progressed today to Via being able to walk for up to 45 minutes in his neighborhood with the use of a cane. He is back to riding a recumbent bike outdoors and can move around freely in his house without any assistance devices. He continues his outpatient therapy in Williamsburg and this week Via started back to work seeing patients at Sentara Pediatric Physicians on a limited schedule.
Reflecting on his life over recent months, Via continues to focus on the progress he has and continues to make. He is eager to be back at work – a sentiment that is shared by his colleagues, office staff and his patients.
This experience has made him appreciate more than ever the role that attitude and courage plays in medicine. “I was lucky to have the type of injury I had and I know this experience will translate to me being more open and understanding,” he adds.