From the Depths of the Ocean to the Top of a Mountain

June 19th, 2012

 Dr. Janet Neglia, an Emergency Medicine physician and Associate Director of Medicine at Princeton University, has a story a little more unique than most.

Her story begins with doing what doctors do best – helping patients.

In one of her many roles, Neglia serves as an advisor to a wilderness-medicine group, which teaches first aid to those who will be outdoors and far away from traditional medical care.

One day about seven years ago, one of the group’s young men dove into a rock quarry filled with water  and hit his head on a submerged rock. He was stabilized and rushed to the nearest hospital with a possible spinal cord injury. Once stabilized Dr. Neglia started making calls to find the best spine surgeon to repair this young man’s back. Several doctors recommended Dr. Alexander Vaccaro at the Rothman Institute.

Fast-forward exactly one week later, with the young man safely at Jefferson receiving care from Dr. Vaccaro and his team, Neglia was at the beach soaking up some sand and sun.

After a few hours of body surfing it was time to go. As she was leaving the water, Neglia bent over to rinse the sand out of her hair like she has done countless times before.

It was this moment that would change her life forever.

As she was bent over at the waist a large wave crashed over her, hitting her in the back of the neck and driving her head straight into the hard sand.

She knew instantly what had happened. She was paralyzed.

But that wasn’t her biggest problem at that moment.

She was drowning.

Despite the shallowness of the ocean water, Neglia was unable to move and started inhaling water.

She prayed that someone would see her but was unable to signal.

All she could see were feet coming and going… past her.

Despite her medical training she started to panic.

Then one of the pairs of feet stopped and turned towards her only to turn away again. She thought she was going to die.

Then, miraculously, the feet turned back to her and the man attached to them picked her up and signaled for help.

She was taken up the beach and an ambulance was called. While waiting for the ambulance she told a friend to call Dr. Vaccaro and tell him what happened. Neglia had his phone number in her cell phone to keep tabs on her student injured in the wilderness-medicine program.

Dr. Vaccaro was traveling at the time of the incident and upon returning got the message that Neglia had been hurt.

He thought there was some kind of confusion. It wasn’t Neglia… it was one of her kids.

Much to his astonishment it was Neglia and she was hurt and hurt bad.

She had fractured two of her cervical vertebrate and damaged, but not severed, her spinal cord.

Dr. Vaccaro fused several of her vertebrate together and three weeks later she left the hospital for rehab.

Eventually she regained the use of all of her limbs. She knew how fortunate she was and realized that not everyone gets a second chance. She was determined to take full advantage.

A few years later, approaching her 60th birthday Neglia decided to seize the opportunity of a lifetime, to make the most of her second chance, to test herself against one of nature’s truly formidable obstacles.

She decided she was going to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at over 19,000 feet and the tallest free standing mountain in the world.

Despite her neck injury and having both knees replaced she trained and did it.

And as she stood at the top of the world… staring out across the vast Tanzanian plain… reveling in an accomplishment not many people can claim… she started thinking about how she got there… the journey she took… how in the blink of an eye she lost so much, only to come back stronger than ever… it was then she couldn’t help but remember the people who got her there.

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