Student recovers from Alabama tornado injuries — one step at a time

Chelsea Thrash walks back into class months after suffering a severe spinal injury with help from UAB neurosurgeons, trauma surgeons and rehab specialists.

Chelsea Thrash, a sophomore at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, was studying for finals April 27, 2011. She was in a second-floor apartment near campus watching the news because the weather had been volatile all day. She watched as video cameras caught the massive F-4 tornado churning toward Tuscaloosa.

“I saw the tornado coming over the Black Warrior River, and I immediately went to the bathroom for shelter,” she recalled. “Probably 15 minutes later I woke up in the courtyard, and I couldn’t feel my legs.”

The entire apartment building had been destroyed. Rescuers found Chelsea, put her on a table top and got her into a pickup truck. She was taken to a triage station, then to Tuscaloosa’s DCH Hospital. MRIs showed a severe back injury, and she was loaded into an ambulance for the 50-mile journey to the Level I Trauma Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

At UAB Hospital, Chelsea joined hundreds of others victims of the 57 tornadoes that swept across North and Central Alabama that day. UAB’s trauma center admitted more than 50 of the most seriously injured, most with spinal or chest injuries.

“Chelsea had an incomplete L1 burst spinal fracture,” said Patrick Pritchard, M.D., a UAB neurosurgeon. “The bone was bursted, similar to an empty soda can being compressed down, and it was pushing back into the spinal canal.”

Pritchard and trauma Surgeon Sherry Melton, M.D., spent 10 hours operating on Chelsea. They removed the crushed L1 bone, and eased the pressure on her spinal cord. They put in a metal cage, and repacked it with the shards of her own bone so that it would fuse together over time. And they put screws in the spine to maintain stability during the fusion.

Chelsea spent two weeks at UAB hospital, most of it in intensive care. She then transferred to UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center to learn to walk again, because Chelsea had a goal.

“I wanted to get up, I wanted to walk again.” She said. “I wanted to walk back into class at Alabama in the fall.”

Intense rehab lasted all summer. Therapists Libby Barnes and Cathy Carver worked Chelsea hard — from wheelchair to crutches, crutches to cane. Then short distances without the cane.

“From the start we had high hopes for Chelsea,” said Keneshia Kirksey, M.D., Chelsea’s rehabilitation physician. “She is very resilient; she made dramatic improvement early and that’s typically what we see in spinal injuries. Most of the improvements happen in the first three months, and we can see changes up to a year or two after spinal-cord injury.”

By mid-August the wheelchair was gone, the crutches put away. Chelsea will use a cane for a while, but Pritchard and Melton expect a full recovery.

And on Aug. 24, not quite four months after the tornado, Chelsea returned to the campus of the University of Alabama. Accompanied by friends and well-wishers, she walked into the Biology Building for her 8 a.m. class.

“I’m going to get back into a state of normalcy — with my friends, teachers and the entire town itself.”

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