Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Recovering from A Spinal Cord Injury: Carley Baldwin's Story

Carley was intimidating on paper. She was part of the studly class of swimmers I came in with at the University of Arizona. I thoroughly stalked each of my fellow incoming freshman. I remember my dad getting in on the excitement-- "This girl from Colorado is top 16 in every event!" Top 16 in the country. And Carley was actually in the top five in most of her events. A complete stud.

Our freshman class convened in Tucson in August...when the average temperature is 102 degrees. A letter had been sent out from the UA staff at the beginning of the summer. A daunting part of it read: "Be prepared to run three solid miles in the afternoon heat". We were all paranoid about this, except Carley. She had been running five miles regularly throughout the summer, in addition to swimming 20 hours per week. Carley had done cross country in high school too.

We went on a recreational run around campus as a freshman class before practices began (over-achievers). I was dying. Carley led the pack, able to chat and laugh the whole time. Carley was perhaps the least awkward member of our class. She could strike up a conversation with anyone and make us laugh with her sarcasm or her contagious eruptions of laughter. I liked her right away.

College swimming reveals a lot. Yes, physically, we didn't wear much. But emotionally, we saw each other naked in the heart of hard practices and after good and bad swims. You basically live with your entire freshman class in the dorms. We traveled in a pack. We were a flock of freshman swimmers riding our beach cruisers down to University Boulevard to get Chipotle (five nights out of seven).

Fast forward nearly 11 years. Carley is the product manager for a medical devices company. She works in the spine division. She's built a successful career. But more important in her mind is a boy named Jonny whom she brought into the world four years ago. She's raised him as a single mama. Carley is now in Denver, close to her parents, who help out a lot with Jonny.

Kristin Viger has been Carley's best friend for 16 years. I remember her coming to visit when I lived with Carley our sophomore year of college. They looked like sisters and were obviously kindred spirits. This summer, they took off to go to Belize on their first vacation together. Twelve hours after their puddle jumper landed on one of Belize's cayes (islands), their vacation turned into a nightmare.

On the evening of June 4, a few of Carley's friends were flipping off of the dock at the group's resort. Carley said she was too afraid to do a flip so she did the move she's done thousands of times in her life-- she dove into the ocean. The tide had dropped significantly since earlier that day. Carley's head hit the water and immediately thereafter hit land. Carley floated to the surface and could not feel her legs. One of her closest friends from college, Keenyn, swam over to retrieve her.

Carley knew there was something seriously wrong so she immediately went into lifeguard mode-- instructing her friends on how to best brace her body and her neck. Carley was transferred to a lawn chair and a rolled towel was placed around her neck for support-- a far cry from the emergency equipment that would be mandatory at a resort anywhere in the USA. But they were in a Third World country and did the best they could with the available resources.

Carley & Keenyn
Carley was in shock, wrapped in a towel on a lawn chair, attempting to move anything. After her friends had no luck tracking down an ambulance, Carley was hoisted into the back of a van. The seats were laid down in the back seat of a cab so Carley, still in the lawn chair, could fit. The drive to the clinic on Ambergris Caye should have only taken 10 minutes, but with cautious driving for the sake of stability it took 25. After checking into the clinic and realizing the incompetence of the doctors, Kristin said they knew they needed to get to a real hospital. Kristin helped line up a charter flight to Belize City, just a 15-minute hop over from the island. In order to situate Carley (who was still on the lawn chair) in the plane, rows of seats were removed. Only two additional passengers could fit, so Kristin and Keenyn accompanied Carley.

When the three landed, there was no ambulance waiting to take Carley to the hospital in Belize City. They waited 15 minutes for an ambulance to take Carley to a hospital five minutes away. It was around 3 a.m. when Carley was finally transferred from the lawn chair onto a basic wooden backboard. Kristin said they felt more comfortable with the doctors at this private hospital in Belize City, but the atmosphere was still starkly different from a hospital in the States.

Carley was taken in for a CAT scan. Up until that point, Keenyn (a former UA football player), had been hopefully reassuring Carley, "it's just a stinger". But the CAT scan showed a far more serious injury. It appeared she had fractured her C4 and C5 vertebrae.

If you Google that injury, a lot of scary stuff pops up. You'll see that C3 through C5 are some of the most critical vertebrae as they relate to your spinal cord. All can lead to paralysis of all or of significant portions of the human body.

After the gravity of the injury was revealed, Carley's parents received a call with the nightmarish news from Belize City. From there, everything was put in motion to evacuate Carley to Miami, Kristin said.

Someone needed to go back to get luggage, so Kristin flew back to the island, packed their bags in a hurry, then hopped on a return flight to Belize City, all within two hours. As they waited in the out-of-date hospital room, Carley and Keenyn listened to gospel music, praying for the Americans to come evacuate them soon. Carley's flight out of the Third World finally took off at 4 p.m. on Monday, June 5. When the medical team swooped in to rescue Carley, she said she'd never been more grateful to be an American.

Tom, Carley's father, was there to receive his daughter in Miami. Carley said she hadn't broken down and cried until she saw her dad. Once in the US, her medical care took a drastic turn for the better. She was taken in for an MRI and CAT scan.

Carley with her parents, Toddie and Tom, and Jonny.
Remember, Carley works in the spine division of a medical device company. She knows all about spinal injuries. She was nervous to see her MRI and prayed that her injury would not be "complete". A complete spinal cord injury means the cord was severed. There is no known treatment to recover from a complete cord injury. The word "incomplete" was what Carley was hoping to hear. Prayers were answered. The injury was incomplete. The protective dural sack around Carley's cord had not even ruptured. So, what does that mean? The paralysis she is feeling now is the result of spinal trauma-- bruising and swelling around her spinal cord.

On Tuesday, June 6, Carley underwent surgery to, in layman's terms, decompress her spine. The surgery was a success. The pseudo vertebrae they inserted in C5's place did it's job. Since the accident, Carley's arms retained some movement but her hands, abdomen and lower extremities were a different story.

A week after the injury, Carley's hands felt like they had fallen asleep. She started feeling a prickly pins-and-needles sensation and the numbness began to fade. When I spoke to her two weeks after the accident, she said she was feeling the same sensational progression with her feet. She had been getting lots of foot rubs since she could tell exactly which parts of her feet were being touched! Huge progress.

Carley has astounded rehab teams in Miami and since being transferred back to Denver. A couple PTs were assisting her as she sat up two weeks post-op. She asked them if she had helped at all. The PTs said that she absolutely had. Proof that the swimmer core doesn't event know how to relax!

There is much to be grateful for in the heart of this devastating accident. Carley said it most eloquently in a recent Facebook post:

No one knows why God puts certain trials in our lives, but throughout this fight His purpose will be made known with the support of my amazing family, friends, and boyfriend... And fighting is exactly what I plan to do. I don't consider June 4th the day of my accident, but rather the day I survived - and I truly believe it was for this little guy. My prayers are for him to learn faith, humor, and perseverance throughout adversity. ❤️💪🏽"Put on the armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." - Ephesians 6:13-14

Carley has a long road ahead of her. She said it's hard for her to comprehend the fact that every SCI (spinal cord injury) is different. Carley sees everything in black and white-- "If I break my arm, there is a set plan and estimated time for recovery." This is different. Doctors cannot forecast when feeling or movement will return to Carley's legs-- legs that have run and swum thousands of miles in their 29 years. It's hard to imagine how life-changing this is for a vivacious young mama and former elite athlete.

Shortly after realizing her legs did not work, Carley told Keenyn, "You know I'm going to walk again." She's been resolute since the minutes after her accident. She wants you to know, she's going to walk again. 

As reassuring as her hope is to all of those who love her, it's integral that Carley has that hope reciprocated. There are trying days ahead, and I know Carley doesn't want any of our pity, but she wants to know you're thinking about her and praying for her and her family-- the people holding her hand as she works toward her second set of first steps in her lifetime.

Carley's life has made a deep imprint on my heart. And that impression grows deeper as I hear of her courage and tenacity in the face of her life's biggest blow. She's a warrior, and I want her to have a massive army fighting alongside her. Shoot Carley a text, send her snail mail, give me a message to forward to her. Pray for endurance and strength as she works her way toward a full recovery.

Financial support is also much appreciated, as flying ambulances tend to cost a fortune, and insurance has not covered as much as Carley's family had hoped. You can help by contributing here.


  1. Wonderfully wtitten Annie. It brought in accurate medical facts ( Im a hospital physician at TMC) and elicited strong emotions. Loved the bible verse as well! Doug Kirkpatrick

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  3. I love the way you use your gifts to impart awareness, encouragement, and love, Annie. Also, I saw in that story a great testimony to the value of a vital relationship with Christ through adversity. Our prayers are with Carley and her family. Any updates?