Gulf News

UAE doctors help paraplegic seaman who broke his spine on cruise ship walk again

7th June 2022

Paralysed after a fall on a cruise ship, with three fractures in his neck, a 57-year-old man has defied all odds to be able to stand up again and walk unassisted after six months — thanks to a very complicated surgery and extensive rehabilitation provided to him at a Sharjah hospital.

Former soldier and police officer Jaroslaw Pieczonka from Gdansk, Poland, had decided to retire early from work and join a cruise ship as its chief security officer.

In August 2021, Pieczonka was on board a ship in the Malta-Suez-Red Sea corridor. As he stepped into the bath for a shower one day, sudden turbulence triggered by rough weather resulted in a bad slip and he fall on his back. Recounting the incident, Pieczonka told Gulf News: “The accident happened on August 17, while the vessel was drifting. I needed to take a shower before conducting my watch. I went into the shower, which had no anti-skid rubber mat. When the vessel moved because the sea was rough, I slipped. I grabbed the safety bar in the shower, but it came off the wall and I fell on my back. I was unconscious and after 15 to 20 minutes I managed to get myself onto my bed on the bunk.”

Numb limbs

Although Pieczonka had numbness in his leg and was not well, he still continued with his work that night. “Small accidents happen all the time on the ship. We simply brush it off and move on. However, I felt different after this fall. I was uncomfortable and was sent back to my room. I fell asleep exhausted and in pain. When I woke up, I could not feel anything from my neck down. It felt as if my chest had been pulled up with a tight belt. I could not even go to the washroom. My team members tried to help me as much as they could, but there was not much they could do onboard.”

Medical assistance at Fujairah

Pieczonka said, “Establishing communication on high seas wasn’t easy. While the captain decided that I needed to disembark at Fujairah port, there was nearly a week’s delay until we reached Fujairah and I was taken off the ship and moved to the Sharq Hospital Emergency Room in Fujairah. From there, I was later rushed to NMC Royal Hospital, Sharjah,” Pieczonka recounted.

The ‘Polish Fighter’

Dr Bobby Jose, clinical aministrator and specialist, NeuroSurgery and Neurointerventionist, NMC Royal Hospital, Sharjah, who attended to Pieczonka, said: “The patient had three fractures in his cervical spine and the delay of nearly seven days resulted in further complications. The hospital staff nicknamed Pieczonka the ‘Polish Fighter’ because of his courage and his resilience. Jaroslaw was ready to do anything to walk. His condition was very challenging.”

Complicated spine surgery

Dr Jose said: “Screening revealed his spine had severe compression at multiple points. He needed extensive surgical management. He underwent C3-C4 and C4-C5 and C6-C7 disectomy and C4 corpectomy and fusion and fixation on August 29.”

“The surgery was complicated and success depended on not just the operating team, but also the will power of the patient and the effort put in by the advanced physiotherapy team once the patient was able to get into physical therapy. We monitored him throughout the six months,” the doctor added.

Virtual reality-aided physiotherapy

Particularly noteworthy was the extensive mobilisation carried out by the physiotherapy team that deployed a completely new kind of virtual reality-based special programme on trial basis and this was very effective in helping him regain strength in his limbs once his spine was stabilised. He was able to sit on a chair with help in three months, walk with minimal support by the end of four months of physiotherapy and rehabilitation and finally walk unaided to take his flight back home at the end of six months.

Pieczonka stayed in hospital even though he had lost his job and had run out of his insurance cover because of the level of care he received in the UAE.

The Polish Embassy came forward to help him and finally Pieczonka was able to fly back to Gdansk on February 17 — not on a wheelchair but on his own feet, unaided, right up to his seat in the flight.

A visibly relieved and emotional Pieczonka said: “I am eternally grateful to Dr Jose for helping me get back on my feet. When I lay in bed paralysed, I knew how difficult my journey to recovery would be. However, every person I encountered made me feel like I would recover completely and their smiles gave me hope. They chatted, joked and made my days brighter.

Overwhelmed by love

He continued: “I am not familiar with the Middle Eastern culture. However, when I saw all these people from different parts of the world of different faiths working together to help me heal, I realised God is one but with different names. The rich mix of cultures at the hospital surprised me. The staff comprised people from so many different countries. Each time, I was greeted with so much positivity. I was never made to feel that I was away from home. The food was good and the kitchen staff took extra care of my needs.”