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Life-Changing Accident Leads to Hope, New Career Path


In August of 2012 Samantha Guillory (her friends call her Sam) was preparing to start her senior year of high school. A star catcher on the Juab High School softball team and volleyball player in the offseason, Sam was just starting to think about what would come after high school. What would actually come next for her, though, would be much different than the plans she dreamed about for graduation, college, and a future playing the sports she loved.

On August 14, 2012, she was driving on the freeway when she lost control of her vehicle and it rolled off the freeway near where she lived in Nephi, Utah. None of her three friends in the vehicle were seriously injured, but Sam was taken immediately to a nearby hospital. After an x-ray showed a severe break in her neck she was life-flighted to Utah Valley Hospital. While the spinal cord didn't tear, the bone around it was crushed and surgery was required to fuse Sam's C6 and C7 bones together and secure her neck. She doesn't remember feeling any pain after the accident, but after surgery she recalls excruciating pain and only being able to sit or stand for a minute or two.

Following two weeks of recovery in the ICU Sam went to the University of Utah Health's rehabilitation services. With treatments for a range of disabling conditions, the University is recognized regionally and nationally for both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation.

Sam's official diagnosis was C6-C7 ASIA-B incomplete tetraplegia; incomplete means there can be some feeling below the site of the injury, but most people call it quadriplegia. The goal of treatment was to regain function and independence, something she didn't have after the accident, and something that at least one of her initial doctors (not from the University of Utah) told her she would never have.

"One of my doctors told my mom at the beginning that we would both have horrible lives because of my injury. It's been nice to prove him wrong," she said. Today Sam has regained so much function that she could almost be a paraplegic; she can write and type with her right hand, her left arm is weaker but it's functional as well, and she has some feeling in her lower body.

That doctor was certainly wrong, but the road to get where she is today wasn't easy. Sam's recovery began with two months of inpatient therapy at University of Utah Health's rehabilitation services. "Treatment was kind of exhausting, you start at 8 a.m. and you go until the afternoon, so it's like a full-time job," she said. "You do therapy every day, and it's not just physical therapy, it's occupational therapy, it's speech therapy, it's all day every day."

The work was slow. She had to re-learn everything and perform mundane tasks like picking something up and putting it down, and learning to write and swallow again.

"It was very frustrating. I couldn't feed myself, I couldn't do anything on my own. My poor therapists, they were the best for putting up with me. I got really frustrated and I was also a teenager so I probably had some attitude," she said with a laugh.

As challenging as the time was that she spent at the hospital, going back to the real world was even harder.

"At the hospital I was surrounded by people in wheelchairs, so I didn't feel weird or like an outsider, I felt very comfortable because there were people like me," said Sam. "Going home was good but home was also horrible because I was…I don't know, in the hospital the tiniest things are a huge step, but in the real world I was so different from everyone else. I was watching my friends play sports our senior year and it was really hard."

She finished her senior year taking online classes, and after graduation enrolled in online courses at the Utah State University extension campus in Nephi. She continued to progress toward independence, regaining more and more function over time, and by the time she graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology she was ready to take the next step.

Sam was accepted into a master's in social work (MSW) program at the University of Utah in 2018 and that was the first time she was able to be on her own, which meant a lot to her. "It means independence, doing simple little things like going to the store or doing my own laundry, it's very fulfilling to me because I get to do it on my own."

She also received a scholarship from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation that removes barriers for students with spinal cord injuries in pursuit of undergraduate and graduate education.

Now that she is in the second year of her master's program, Sam is back in the rehabilitation unit but this time it's not as a patient. One of the physicians she worked with, Jeffrey Rosenbluth, MD, often told Sam during her treatment that she should come back and work with the team; when she needed a practicum for her second year she contacted him and was accepted. It's an opportunity to see the rehabilitation services from a new perspective as part of the care team that gave her so much hope during recovery.

"I guess [my therapists] gave me hope that I could eventually get back or get somewhere that I could be independent again," Sam said. "It felt good just to be progressing. They were so patient and they would do anything for their patients, so I'm very lucky I had them."