Snowboarder and Motocross fan Russell Burke woke up on a beautiful sunny day in May 2013. He had been working hard all week and had also been coaching his children's soccer teams, so decided he would round up his friends for a day of fun, boating and swimming in the sunshine at Lake Havasu, Arizona.
Russell has always been an outgoing, sporty and sociable person and the trip to the lake was something that he and his friends did often. They sunbathed, and laughed and began to play horseshoes on the shore. After a little while the heat became too much and he decided to cool off in the water. The boat was tied up nearby. He got inside and went to dive from the back of the boat into the river.
He was completely unaware that the area in which the boat was tied up had dramatically shallower water behind it, a mere 2 feet deep. After diving into the water, Russell hit the riverbed at speed. He heard an enormous crack coming from his neck - he had broken two cervical vertebrae (C4/C5) and was instantly paralysed from the neck down.
Completely bewildered, Russell immediately realised that he was in trouble. He could feel no pain, but also could not feel any part of his body. More terrifying was the fact that he was laying face down in the water and completely unable to move. He held his breath and could hear people having fun on the shoreline, a deep panic set in - he was running out of air quickly.
“I still remember it like it was yesterday, hearing my neck break and my body going instantly numb was crazy. I was face down in the water and I couldn't move and I was holding my breath. I could hear people on the shore, I was floating in the water thinking Oh man, someone needs to find me or I'm going to drown. I was starting to gasp for air” he remembers.
Miraculously, his girlfriend saw him floating in the water and thinking it was a prank, she turned him over. Russell gasped for air deeply. “Russ what are you doing? Stop joking around!” she exclaimed, but he explained to her that he could no longer move or feel his body and it was then that an ambulance was called. His friends gently brought him to the shore, keeping him afloat in the water so the natural buoyancy would support his body.
He was taken by ambulance to the Needles Hospital in Colorado but the doctors quickly realised that the injuries were more serious than they were able to cater for. He was airlifted to the UMC Hospital in Las Vegas where a Level 4 Trauma team awaited his arrival. Russell flat-lined three times on the flight but incredibly he fought through and arrived safely. His friends and family raised a massive $20,000 USD and the trauma flight alone cost $13,000 USD to transfer between the two hospitals!
On arrival at UMC Hospital, under heavy sedation and still unaware as to the extent of his injuries, Russell was fitted with an endotracheal tube. An endotracheal tube is needed to mechanically ventilate a patient (or breathe for them by a machine).
As he began his recovery, he initially believed that he would be able to push himself in a wheelchair “how bad could it be?” he thought. But soon he learned that he would forever be unable to move and would rely on carers for assistance with everyday tasks for the rest of his life.
Understandably, his children aged 8 and 9 were hesitant to visit him, seeing their father attached to machines and tubes; they were also in shock and frightened for their father. “I really thought my life was over when I first got hurt.” he said.
The specialist care team assisted Russell daily, he underwent grueling rehabilitation from 8am until 5pm every day for three months. His family and friends learned how to care for him at home too. He was feeling determined.
With the support of Poolcorp and SCP fundraising he was able to remain living in his own house. He still requires 24 hour nursing care and extensive home rehabilitation daily for circulation and mobility and he visits Therapy Core Restorative for two hours every week. “I have to accept that someone has to support me 24/7 - I have to accept it and roll with it” he said.
With the vital fundraising, Russell was able to buy a wheelchair accessible van to travel around. Of course, as an example of his thoughtfulness and selflessness, his initial thought was that he would now be able to help all of his wheelchair bound friends who were unable to afford a van of their own. He would share his!
After returning home, Russell underwent a difficult separation from his partner. This is a sadly a common occurrence as the reality of the intense physical and emotional care needed can be initially very difficult, not only for the patient but also for their loved ones. Especially if they have not experienced disabilities before. “When I came home I was super depressed, not wanting to talk to anyone and only wanting to lie in bed,” said Russell. He fell into a deep depression.
His home rehabilitation continued and his friends and family rallied around him. Still using a tracheotomy to breathe, he felt it was one of the biggest changes to learn to live with. The machine breathes 12 times per minute for Russell, automatically pumping air into his lungs. He didn't speak for almost 8 months. He sorely missed playing with his children and his depression deepened. He admits he felt like he could no longer go on with life as it now was.
One fateful day in December 2013, Russell was visited by Andrew Skinner accompanied by a friend from the Triumph Foundation. The Triumph Foundation's mission is to help children, adults, and Veterans with Spinal Cord Injury/Disorder (SCI) to triumph over their disability and to inspire them to keep moving forward with their lives by pushing themselves to get better every day. Andrew himself suffered a C4, C5, & C6 Spinal Cord Injury in 2004 and is a recovering quadriplegic.
Crediting Andrew and the Triumph Foundation for changing his whole outlook on life in that visit. “They told me how my life was not over just because I was in a chair. From that day forward I’ve been unstoppable.” said Russell.
Russell is very open about his experience in the hope to inspire others and said “I would sit and cry and wonder why this happened to me. I came home in Oct 2013 and probably by December I turned I don't want to live miserably anymore. I want my old life back no matter what. From that day forward I never wanted to look back to those dark days.”
He went along to a Triumph Foundation sports day and his world opened up. He was amazed that so many things were possible! “I do more stuff now than I did when I could walk. I make the best of everything!” he laughed.
Since his accident, former snowboarder Russell has taken part in many sports, been mountain skiing, and is an accomplished target shooter on the gun range. He uses a wheelchair mounted joystick to aim the gun with his chin, and blows into a tube to activate the gun trigger. “I still love doing all the activities I love, but now I just do stuff with a little help.” he said. “Don't feel sorry for me, I am living a great life. Acceptance is the key - some people have been like this (quadriplegic) for 20 years but have ever accepted it and never move forward”.
He always credits his family and friends for his new found fun and freedom. “Have a good group of people around you to help you get where you want to be.” is his advice. And great advice too! And when talking about his two children, “The kids are awesome now. They transitioned really well. To them it's nothing, it's normal. I can't say it was easy, but they handled it like champions!”
Russell is one of the most caring and encouraging people I have ever had the honour to get to know. Something you will clearly see from his interviews as well as his social media. He is always motivating others. Although limited with COVID restrictions, he visits people who have had similar injuries and encourages them to take on their new challenges and shine. Although never suffering any addictions himself, Russell is a Co Host on the Talking Sobriety podcast with his good friend Colin Morrison which aims to help and encourage people living with addictions.
“I enjoy talking to newly injured sci patients, hanging out with friends, doing stuff people think I can't do because I'm paralyzed and pushing my limits to its fullest. You can do anything that you put your mind to. My saying for my new life is "instead of walking I roll. Things that keep me going are my kids and myself showing other people that suffer from a spinal cord injury that life is not over. It's just a new chapter of life.” he said. “Once I accepted my injury my life turned around. Now you can’t stop me from doing things. I live life to its fullest. Life is only as good as we make it!!”
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