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UTMC helps BMX racer beat paralysis to get back on track

Sixteen-year-old Dakota Gillett was an avid BMX bicycle racer with the dream of going pro.

“BMX was my passion. It was just my thing,” Gillett said. “I’d just focus on that and do my school — and that’s all I did.”

Dakota Gillett, who was diagnosed with lifetime paralysis after a bike accident last year, was pedaling again recently on Health Science Campus.

On July 3, 2016, while on vacation in Tucson, Ariz., he entered a BMX contest that would forever change his life. When attempting a jump over a barrel, Gillett fell and broke his C3 and C4 vertebrae, which resulted in him being paralyzed from the chest down.

His mom, Heidi, was home in Montpelier, Ohio, when her son was injured. After arriving at the hospital in Arizona, she was not prepared for what she saw.

“There was Dakota, with tubes everywhere. He had a ventilator in. He had tubes coming out of his neck, he had two central lines put in,” she said. “He was just sitting there. He just looked so miserable and so sad. I’ve never seen him like that.”

Eman Jarouche, physical therapist at UTMC’s Outpatient Therapy Services, worked with Dakota Gillett.

After undergoing surgeries and beginning rehabilitation, Gillett was transferred to the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northwest Ohio on the UT Health Science Campus to be closer to home. He then progressed to outpatient care at UT Medical Center.

“He started off here in our facility in a wheelchair,” said Eman Jarouche, physical therapist at UTMC’s Outpatient Therapy Services. “He had mentioned that he was able to stand a couple of times and try to take a step, but that was all he was able to do when he started here.”

During the next nine months, Gillett and his mom traveled more than an hour from their home to UTMC at least twice each week for physical therapy and occupational therapy services.

Gillett and Jarouche

“Once he came here, they instantly put him on a harness, and they put him on a treadmill and got him walking,” Gillett’s mom said.

In spite of a diagnosis of lifetime paralysis with little chance of walking, Gillett was determined to get back on his bike by the first anniversary of his accident.

“As my body got stronger, we started talking about getting back on my bike,” he said. “I went out and bought a helmet and bought a strap for my left leg and said, ‘OK, now it’s time to focus.’ They put the belt on and were like, ‘OK, you’re on your own,’ and I look back and I’m on my own! This was unbelievable.”

“His biggest goal was getting back on the bike by the one-year mark, and now he’s riding with the wind in his hair!” Jarouche said.

Gillett’s mom credits Jarouche and the rest of her son’s therapy team at UTMC for pushing him while giving him the quality care he needed.

“I felt like these guys actually cared and made sure that that person could get to where they needed to get,” she said. “When Dakota would get his goals, they would be doing dances with him. I’m just so happy with this place.”

“My experience at UT is possibly the best experience that I’ve ever had in my whole life because they never give up and they always push you to your limits,” Gillett said.

To watch Gillett’s story, click here.