Randall Duchesneau had it all planned back in 2006. He was studying hotel administration at Cornell University with an eye toward a career in real estate finance. Twenty-one years old. Beginning his senior year. The world at his feet.
Then, he damaged his spinal cord during a club gymnastics practice leaving him with complete paralysis in his legs and trunk and minimal movement in his arms—and the world shifted.
Randy spent time at three different hospitals battling numerous complications from the injury, including Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare disorder that causes the top layer of skin to die and shed. (It also led to a hole in his esophagus that took multiple operations to repair.) He was dependent on a ventilator to breath. By March of the following year, five months after the injury, he transferred to MossRehab in Elkins Park, Pa. as an inpatient. The move put him near Blue Bell, Pa., where his mother lives and where he went to high school.
"When I moved to Moss I still had a trach[eotomy] and was breathing through a hole in my throat," he says. "At night my speaking valve was removed, and I was put on oxygen. I was unable to yell for help or use a nurse call bell in bed. I was unable to do anything besides [rotate] my arms and shrug my shoulders. I couldn't fully flex my bicep or bring my hand up to my shoulder."
But he also had a plan. He wanted to get back to Cornell to finish his degree by the fall. To do that, he needed more mobility. Needed to get into a power wheelchair and learn to use the technology required to be a student again.
"It was a very ambitious timeline, but I didn't want to spend anymore time outside of school or be stuck at home watching TV," he says. "I wanted to try to take back control over my life as soon as possible. It was quite a challenging adjustment physically, emotionally and socially. Instead of doing my 'home transition' at home I did it at school where I would be able to stimulate my mind for two hours a day."
His therapists at MossRehab, where he spent three months as an inpatient and many more as an outpatient, agreed the plan was ambitious, but jumped in to help him make it happen.
"We typically don't see people going back to an active life so quickly," says physical therapist Janet Parker. "I think it was good for him."
“That really was where he belonged,” adds occupational therapist Alison Bell, OTR/L. “That was where he was most at home.”
So, Randy and his team at MossRehab went to work, and Randy returned to college in the fall of 2007, having missed only one academic year.
Back to School
"I went back that fall and moved into an accessible dormitory," he says. "I had about 30 different close friends who were volunteering to assist me at dinner time and socially - as well as having nursing care and assistant care around the clock. And I also had family members up there quite frequently."
He took two classes the first semester, as he gradually worked himself back into the routine. It took two years (and continued physical therapy at MossRehab during the summer), but he finished his degree in the fall of 2009.
And he wasn't finished. After graduation, Randy volunteered in administration at MossRehab, then went on to Yale University, where he is currently studying for his master's in public health.
During his first two years at Yale, he used two adjacent dorm rooms-one for him, one for a nurse. The two rooms were connected by a voice monitor. Students assigned by Yale take notes for him in class. Unable to type, he uses speech recognition software on his computer. He answers the phone using a touch-screen tablet with voice recognition.
"My productivity is maybe 10 percent of what it used to be, but I've found that if you manage your time, take away distractions, and slowly peck away at projects, it's possible to get things done. Just be sure to always leave ample time in case of unexpected health problems." he says.
New career goals
His injury forced adjustments to Randy's career goals. Once he completes his master's, he plans to work in Washington for the federal government, helping people who face the same issues he has battled.
"I'd like to work as a health care policy analyst," he says. "I would review legislative proposals and various studies to determine how implementing changes would affect the health of certain populations, their access to healthcare, etc."
It has been a tough road back for Randy, but he and people around him say he was equipped before the accident with the drive he has needed.
"I was very motivated to begin with, even before my injury," he says. "The biggest adjustment had to be changing some of the goals I had set 10-15 years prior, and working through some of my limitations to find ways I could be productive and find ways I could be most useful. That required a lot of introspection in order to come to terms with my permanent disability. I guess that is part of the grieving process."
Marni Nutkowitz, PsyD, a neuropsychologist at MossRehab who worked with Randy in both individual sessions and in a support group, noted his innate personal resilience as a key factor in his drive to improve. But she also points out something else.
"It is about the person's ability to find some deeper meaning," she says. "If they are not able to achieve that, it is a tougher battle."
She believes Randy's deeply ingrained belief that he is on this earth to achieve at a high level provided that deeper meaning. It enabled him to take a problem-solving approach to his illness, quickly get back on his career path and avoid the depression that so often accompanies traumatic injuries.
“That’s just who Randy is,” adds occupational therapist Bell. “He had it in him to do so much more.”
Randy says he has learned some lessons along the way.
- Search out support groups. Randy joined the spinal injury support group at MossRehab. "I made a couple of close friends from that support group, and we motivated each other to make the most improvement that we could. I still keep in contact with some of them today."
- Understand your medical condition. "I found it very helpful to know as much about my injury as possible. That's helped me in my efforts to stay healthy and avoid hospitalizations."
- Get involved in recreational activities. That will ensure that you have something you enjoy doing despite your limitations, he says. It also will put you around other people with similar conditions you can relate to and talk to about things. "Knowing different people out there in the community and getting information from them really makes the adjustment back into the community more manageable," he says.
- Keep pushing. "Don't be afraid to try something, even though you may think 'how could I possibly do this with a disability?' When you see somebody else with a similar disability doing something like skiing, it just blows your mind. You just have to be brave enough to try to do things that you want to do. That, and a little creativity, ingenuity, and the support of others."
Randy says he has been surprised to learn he influenced others, as well. Two friends who provided support during his time at Cornell went on to medical school, partly due to their experience with Randy. Another decided to pursue a PhD in spinal cord injury at MIT, and Randy's case was woven throughout his dissertation.
“I guess I have had an impact on them without realizing it,” he says.
Despite the challenges laid before him since his injury, Randy says, ultimately, he is now a stronger person.
"A lot of my priorities in life have changed," he says. "I'm not as materialistic and a lot of the problems that used to frustrate me seem so inconsequential now. They don't really get to me. I have a different perspective now and don't get upset so easily because life is too short to spend it upset at the little things."