Paralyzed Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen returns to Colorado for rehabilitation

Posted at 12:45 PM, Jun 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-19 11:34:07-04

Despite being paralyzed in an ATV crash, Colorado Olympic gold-medal swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen was smiling and happy as she was moved from a hospital in Arizona to Craig Hospital in Colorado on Wednesday.

"Yes, this injury sucks. And yes, things hurt. But I’m alive and I’m so thankful to be alive," Van Dyken-Rouen said before departing Arizona. "That's why I can be positive about it, it helps me get through the pain."

After traveling in two ambulances and a private jet, she arrived to the hospital in in Englewood, she remained in good spirits.

"I'm doing alright, thank you, rockin and rollin," she said.

Van Dyken-Rouen's two public statements were her first in public since her devastating crash June 6. Van Dyken-Rouen, and her husband, former Broncos punter Tom Rouen, were riding ATV's when Amy hit a curb and went down an embankment.

She said when her husband found her, she was facedown and not breathing.

While she doesn't remember much about the crash and being taken to the hospital, she does remember what the doctor told her before emergency surgery.

"The doctor told me before I went into surgery to say our goodbyes," Van Dyken-Rouen said. "There was a good chance I wasn’t going to make it out of surgery."

"I looked at my husband and said goodbye. [I said] please continue on with your life, I allow you to date, which was hard to say, but we said our goodbyes," Van Dyken-Rouen said. "To do that and then to be here now, and to be with him, is the most amazing thing."

Van Dyken-Rouen's doctor said Amy had a "high-energy accident" and a "high-energy blunt trauma" that resulted in her not being able to feel her legs or move her legs.

"This is the toughest competition I’ve ever had," Van Dyken-Rouen said. "The fact that I am an athlete and the fact that I've been working out really hard has really helped this recovery process."

Van Dyken-Rouen said she's already started physical therapy and, because of her fitness level, she's been able to do things right now that a lot of patients can't do until weeks and months into therapy.

And of course, she has a great attitude about the wheelchair.

"I’m going to get the best wheelchair ever, I’m going to make it so cool," Van Dyken-Rouen said. "I’m going to do my hair to match my chair. I'm going to rock it out."

She also said she has plans for her father, who is not supposed to be walking.

She said she doesn't remember saying it, but she supposedly told him, "Hey Dad, now we can have some wheelchair races."

"Maybe it will help him as well," she said.

She said she is looking at everything with a positive attitude.

"Be happy every day you wake up, every day you take a breath is a blessing," Van Dyken-Rouen said.

-- Van Dyken-Rouen's injury --

Van Dyken-Rouen said on Twitter last week that she is paralyzed.

Wednesday she said she can't feel anything from the about the pubic bone down.

"I have no feeling," she said. "I don’t know if it will come back."

Neurosurgeon Luis Manuel Tumialan explained that surgery on Van Dyken-Rouen's spine was performed to put her back into an alignment that will allow her to sit and also to heal the leakage of cerebral-spinal fluid.

"One of the most unfortunate and disquieting things I have to do is I have to tell a patient who is going to be exposed to all this risks -- and its always something I say last because it is so upsetting to me as well -- that, 'we're going to do this operation and it is not expected to return any function to the lower extremities or sensation to the lower extremities.'"

The surgery also posed a grave risk of injury to her circulatory system because of the injury's proximity to the aorta and vena cava. Tumialan said it was a miracle those were not already injured.  

"It is remarkable she sustained no vascular injuries from this, the event itself," he said.

He was impressed with the way his patient took the news.

"She looked at me with fortitude, she nodded her head and she said, "Doc, go do it."

Van Dyken-Rouen's injury was considered to be "severe," the highest level on the scale Tumialan explained.

In the operating room, the surgeons first handled the leakage of the cerebral-spinal fluid with a "lumbar drain." They next inserted screws into certain key vertebrae and then a rod that was used to slowly guide the spine back into alignment, millimeter by millimeter. They also removed some layers to allow the neural elements in her spine to decompress before inserting rods to hold the newly corrected alignment.

-- Going to Craig Hospital --

Van Dyken-Rouen said she picked Craig Hospital for her rehabilitation work because they have such a great reputation.

She said she always picks the best of everything and Craig Hospital is the best.

"I feel like they’re going to do the best for me, and give me the best opportunity to live a normal life, to be independent. That's the goal right now, to be independent," Van Dyken-Rouen said. "Plus, it’s in Colorado. My parents live there, my husband’s family lives there."

Van Dyken-Rouen has been to Craig before. She said she visited some of the victims of the Columbine shooting there in 1999 and saw their progress there.

Now she's ready to be the patient there.

"I’m going to get through it, it’s OK," Van Dyken-Rouen said.