John’s Story

My name is John Ulsh.  I am 41 years old and live in Carlisle, PA with my wife and two kids.

One December 1, 2007 my wife, my daughter (8), my son (4), and myself were in a head-on car crash.  We were on a two-lane 55 MPH road when a car crossed the center line and hit us head-on.  There were no skid marks on the road.  The police estimated the impact speed to be 125 MPH.    It was 1:30 in the afternoon.  We were on are way home from a swim meet for my daughter.  The driver wasn’t drunk or on drugs.  Something distracted him and he crossed the line at the last second.  The other driver died at the scene.  My son and I were flown to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, the closest trauma hospital.  My wife and daughter were taken to Hagerstown, MD, to the closet hospital.   My wife Tonia and my daughter Katie had broken collar bones and lacerations.  Tonia also had 3 broken ribs, a broken foot and a broken hand.  They each spent a few days in the hospital.  My son James was sitting behind me.  He had his fibula and tibia broken in his left leg.  His collar-bone was broken and the lap belt severed his small intestine.  He spent two weeks in the hospital and went home in a wheel chair.  I took most of the collision.  My spleen and my diaphragm were ruptured, which caused my left lung to collapse.  My pelvis was shattered. Four vertebrae in my lower back were fractured.  My left foot was broken in multiple places.  I had 12 broken ribs as well as cuts and lacerations all over my body.   Later I would find out that tissue in my heart was also damaged causing a hole to form in my heart wall.  I was given less than a 3% chance of surviving.  I took over 35 units of blood over the first 12 hours.  My wife was moved by ambulance from Maryland to Hershey that night so she could see me one last time.  I shouldn’t be alive.  Over the next 3 days, I had 12 major surgeries to stabilize me, remove my spleen, repair my diaphragm and to begin to put my pelvis,vertebrae, and foot back together.  I was in a coma for 15 days.

I was paralyzed from the waist down when I awoke, but was very lucky to have my spine generally intact and I had suffered no head trauma.  My pelvis was put back together with a titanium plate with six screws across the front and two long screw in the back.  The pain, complications and the additional surgeries kept me in the hospital in critical care for most of December.  Three days before Christmas, I was moved to a rehab wing of a local nursing home.  I was not allowed to be raised above 15 degrees and could not move my legs.  I was told I would be fitted for a back brace and that once I had it I would be allowed to have my bed raised when I was wearing it.  I was not allowed to try to put any weight on my legs for 10 weeks because my pelvis and my back needed time to heal.  I spent two months living in the nursing home.  I was still in a lot of pain and often it was unbearable.  I was taking a lot of narcotics but it only gave me some relief.  About a month later I had gained back about 50% control of my right leg but I still had no use of my left.  I was starting to learn to use  a wheelchair with my back brace on but moving was very painful and sitting was worse. (My tailbone had been split in two long ways.)  By the end of the 10 weeks I was able to get into my wheelchair with the help of my wife. The pain was still debilitating but I was doing whatever I could to get better. All I really desired was to go home to my wife and kids.  I couldn’t stand but I built my strength with the arm bike every day and lifted with my arms.  (I had the therapist tie stretchy bands to my bed rails.)  At the end of 10 weeks I was able to use my right leg and had some control, but no feeling in my left leg.  I was moved to an in-patient rehab center to start the process of re-learning to walk.  I was allowed to put full weight on my right leg but only 10% on my left.  Within less than a week, I could use a walker.  All the hard work I had put in trying to keep some muscle had paid off.  I could hold up my weight with my arms.  (I did weigh quite a bit less at that point.)  A few days later I got my wish and got to go back home to my family.  Two days, later I started what would be many months of out-patient rehab.

I continued to have issues.  The September following the accident, I had to go back in the hospital to have my abdominal muscles put back together.  I was too swollen at the time of the accident so after 3 days of leaving me open they closed just my skin.  They didn’t want to do the surgery to attach them until I could stand.  That was an eight-hour surgery that put me back on a ventilator for a day and kept me in the hospital for two weeks.  Making myself return to the hospital of my own will was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.  The doctors were unable to close the abdominal muscles the whole way so some areas are held together with Gore Tex mesh.  Ten days after going home I developed 10 blood clots in my legs and ended up back in the hospital.  The clots damaged the flaps in my veins.  My left leg swells up now and I need to pump it 2 hours a day to flush the fluid out. I will need to do this the rest of my life.  I now need to wear compression all the time and am constantly fighting wounds opening on my leg that won’t heal from the skin breaking down.  I have had 6 additional surgeries on my left leg to try to help alleviate the pain and cramping.

The doctors told me in the beginning it would take at least two years until I started feeling better.  I thought they were crazy.  Two years seemed like a lifetime. Turns out they were right.  I had been a runner my whole life.  I ran track in college and started running longer distance after graduation.  I had run 15 miles that morning. Being in great shape is one of the reasons I am still here.  Knowing that I would most likely never run again was one of the things that I thought about a lot while I was lying in bed in the nursing home unable to move.  The first Thanksgiving after the accident I completed a 5K with 87 of my closest friends and family, all wearing “Jogging with John” t-shirts.  I had only been cleared from my abdominal surgery 25 days prior but the one year anniversary of our accident was approaching and I had participated in the Turkey Trot for the last 6 years.  I needed to show my family and friends I was getting better.    With the help of a cane and my friends taking turns helping me stay upright I walked the entire 5k. My time was 59 minutes.  I couldn’t get out of bed for two days afterward.

I returned back to rehab a few days later.  I had found alternative ways to deal with the pain that didn’t involve narcotics.  Acupuncture, bio-feedback and massage therapy were my new drugs.  I was learning to live with the “new me”.  I walked with a limp and still had chronic pain in my left leg, pelvis and back.  I only had 50% feeling in my left leg from the nerve damage and was told that the time for it to repair itself had passed. The damage to my veins in my left leg wasn’t going to get any better either.  But, I knew I should be happy to be alive and felt fortunate to be able to see my kids grow up.   Finally, in October of 2009, I had decided I needed to find a way to get stronger if I wanted to get more of my life back.  I went to the gym.  I was in really bad shape.  I was only able to do 15 min on a stationary bike set at the least resistance.  Over the next six months I went from being frail and weak to lifting more than 300 lb. with my legs and having a strong stable upper body.   I am now  stronger than I was before the accident even though I still don’t have functioning abs which makes my core unstable.
At 6’2″, I weighed 185 as a runner before the accident.  I weighed as little as 155 while in the nursing home, and I now weigh 200 lbs. Cardio is still my biggest challenge because of my pelvis and the swelling in my leg, but  since having another major surgery on my left leg,  I have slowly started to run again.  I am in the gym for an hour or two almost every day, working to continue my recovery.  I love the pain/soreness from lifting weights.  When my chest or my arms hurt, it keeps me from thinking about my other pain.  The pain from lifting takes my mind off the chronic pain.   My back and my legs are now so strong that I don’t walk with a cane any longer.  I still have chronic pain, but I keep pushing myself through it and keep getting stronger.  I miss running and the ‘runners high‘.  Weight training is a large part of my plan to get back to running.

Since the time I could get out of the house in my wheel chair, I have talked to groups about appreciating life. It has grown into blogging and speaking about overcoming setbacks and persevering.  When I started, it was about getting a second chance at life and using what I had been left with by God to help motivate others to continue to improve.  It’s grown into writing a book and having my story told in Men’s Fitness Magazine.  Many people have told me how my family’s story changed their lives.  Some stories are about major changes and some are as simple as checking their auto insurance.

Now, I have people coming up to me daily at the gym telling be how I motivate them to work out harder.  They tell me that if I can get in here every day and push myself through the pain and complications, then they should be able to make it a priority in their lives.  It has worked both ways.  I am now more motivated than ever to work hard and to lead by example.  It is another way I can use what happened to me and my family to do something for the good of others. It is only by the grace of God that I am still alive and I want to use this gift to help others improve and appreciate their lives.

This blog is about my recovery and my motivation..  My story, like my recovery is ever changing.  Check my posts often to follow “my story” as it changes. If you have a comment, please share it.  (I think that is how this blogs are suppose to work!)


John’s Story — 10 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story of pain and recovery. Your story challenges me to be content and grateful w/what I have, but also to take courage w/current health uncertainties/challenges, which only aggravate a sense of loss in those missed moments and discontent. Your history w/running in part reminds me of my husband, and I think of better ways to show him my appreciation and not take his life for granted. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See and perceive the new things I’m doing for you” (Isaiah 43:18-19 NIV a) comes to mind.

    I empathize w/your apprehensions in publishing. I’ve worked on a MSS since 2002 about my grandma and my interactions during a time of fear for me and loss for her. What I’ve to work on next is explaining or showing how fear impacted me, and how our interactions influenced me for the better. I don’t want to “unveil” my faults to the world, but for a growth/recovery story to occur, there must be a degree of transparency. Anyway transparency, tastefully and skillfully shared, gains credibility w/readers.

    It’s true that it takes time to understand and for the story to unfold; we don’t want to report it “unfinished.” Yet, that’s also the beauty of it: God #s our days in his book, but even then, His story is unfinished: the return of Christ, the new kingdom, the old gone, the new come (Rev.). The irony: “If anyone is in Christ, s/he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (). So within us we have a piece of the new kingdom, the cornerstone: Jesus via his helper, the Holy Spirit (John 14-16). Here’s the challenge: finding the guiding principle, the thread, that sews our fragile stories together. What I’m trying to say is remember that words, as words, come forth from someone/thing and even though ink does seem indelible, we can choose to change or adjust the story as we go, and ultimately, God’s word remains.

    One way I’ve dealt w/publishing apprehension is to break the story into thematic sections, and make those themes the substance of 1 MSS. So 1 MSS is on caregiving, and another on me/fear.

    Let me know if there’s any way w/writing/editing/prayer that I can help/encourage. Visit my website to learn more about me and my work.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You have no idea how much you have inspired me. I’ve been struggling for the last year and a half because I suffered a back injury. I was 24 at the time that I ruptured a disc in my lower back, and a very active young woman. The process has been frustrating, and ultimately the only treatment option that was left for me was a fusion in my L4-L5. I had that back in July, so I’m now 6 months out and still in constant pain. Your story has given me so much hope! I’ve been dreaming of the day I can go back to the gym, but I think I will get a membership again this week, thanks to your story. I have limitations, but I must learn to work within them! Thank you John, and God bless you! I pray that you continue to recover and inspire others!

    Peace and blessings,


    • Melissa~ Thank you for the kind words. I am glad that my story is motivating you to move forward with your recovery. The gym is a good place to start gaining your life back. Start slow and don’t be discouraged. If you stay committed, you will see improvements. Work on a base and build from there. Feel free to message me with questions. I know what it is like to rehab a back.
      God Bless,

  3. “John’s Story” feels as though I am reading my own story – with only a few tweaks. I was referred to this blog site by my SIL who met John (you) recently. In September 2009, she & I were jogging on a local county road where I was hit by a young teen & his truck & life-lioned to Hershey for multiple traumatic injuries, not expected to live nor believed to wake from a coma with having speech, hearing, use of my limbs, etc…. Like you, I should not be alive and am here purely by the Grace of God. It will be 3 yrs this Sept since the accident. I live in chronic pain every single day, along with other traumatic induced health-related conditions (Fibromyalgia, Diabetes, Thyroidism) from this accident, to name a few. I had my pelvis shattered, multiple neck injuries, brain injury etc.. Basically, they had to put me back together. So, I know what this is like and how debilitating it is on your life. And, like you, I was a runner prior to these traumatic, life-altering injuries. I miss it every single day. Also, like you, I walk w/the use of a cane. I know what its like to become dependent on others just to do the “little” things you once only took for granted. I could literally go on & on, as you are familiar with. However, I must tell you that I am utterly and completely inspired by your ability to go to the gym. I honestly do not know HOW you are doing this. My pain is SO incredibly debilitating that there are days I can do nothing. Believe me, I, like you, know exactly what is means and what it takes to “grit through” the pain. I know exactly what it’s like to put on a happy face while in the company of family & friends so as to prevent them from having to endure your suffering. When you face death and live, you choose how you relate to others, despite your own challenges, because you are just so grateful for life that you embrace every single moment you now have with those you love. And, like you & every other similar trauma survivor, I know how imperative a positive, determined attitude is to recovery and to living. But, how are you getting to the gym let alone physically being able to overcome the intensity of your pain to work out? To most, this question may seem odd, but, for those of us that relate to your story and have similar ones of our own, .. this is an honest, pure, and recovery-type needed question. I am literally in awe of your ability to work out… Please share. Thanks & God bless!!

    • Melissa,

      Thanks for reaching out to me. Unless people have been through the things we have, they can’t understand what chronic pain can do to a person mentally and physically. I have been writing a lot lately about going to the gym and how I have been able to get to this point, for my book. I think I would like to share this story with you. I have a busy weekend with my son’s first communion, but this coming week I will share a post that I hope you can find useful. If you sign up to receive posts via email, it will come to your inbox. Please let me know what questions you have after reading.

      God Bless,

  4. Hi John!
    Just wanted to take a minute to thank you for sharing your story. I remember that fateful day, Amanda (Bordner) had called me to tell about the accident. She would give me updates on all of you in the months after, and then always report your physical milestones over the years since. It was a great honor participating aside you in the Dick Fralick River Run 2 weeks ago. You emit an incredible sense of positivity and determination. If anyone can speak on where a “don’t quit” attitude gets you, you certainly can!!!
    Good luck on the upcoming Warrior Dash – you will do great!
    God bless you and your family.

    • Thanks Laura! Our bodies are incredible machines. It really has amazed me what they are capable of doing if we keep them in good shape through exercise and healthy eating. They can even heal themselves! The Dick Fralick River Run was a great event honoring a great man and a great family! I was really happy I could be there to honor him.

      God Bless,

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