Back on two feet
November 8, 2005
John Lassalette can do the buttons on the front of his dress shirts, just not the tricky ones on the cuffs. The little ones on the shirt collars are also too much. At least for now.Lassalette knows he may never regain the dexterity to do such nimble tasks, but he’s got plenty of reason to hope. Almost four months removed from a spinal cord injury suffered during a rugby game that initially left him without any use of his arms and legs, the local attorney has made a recovery that, in medical terms, could qualify as a miracle.Some people with the same type of injury, Lassalette says, never leave a sip-and-puff-powered wheelchair. Some, like late actor Christopher Reeve, have to breathe on a ventilator for the rest of their life. To see Lassalette stand up from behind the desk at his law practice and extend his massive palm for a handshake is to see a man who has recovered a large portion of his life.Still, a full recovery it is not. Lassalette has taken the biggest steps – literally – by relearning how to use his legs. He ditched his walker a week before he left Craig Hospital in Denver in late August. He stopped using a cane about a month later. But his steps are anything but routine. To put one foot in front of the other still requires a focused mental effort. The same goes for the shirt buttons. Or shaving. Or folding laundry. Regaining neurological functions after a spinal cord injury isn’t the same thing as regaining movement after a muscle tear or an operation to fix a joint. The process is slow, and often frustrating, with no guarantees on how much will come back.
“I can do stuff, but functionally I’m not that great,” says Lassalette, who at 39 still has his boyish good looks. “You’re not going to put a knife in my hands and say, ‘Honey, help me make dinner.’ I can squeeze with my hand. I can hold onto something. But I still have a foam cylinder around the toothbrush and the razor. I still have some adaptive aids.”Lassalette spends a combined 20 hours a week doing occupational therapy at Aspen Valley Hospital and physical therapy at the Aspen Club. After missing more than three months of work, the civil litigator is also back to work about three hours every weekday. His wife of 12 years, Kristen, and his two daughters, Camille, 9, and Ava, 5, occupy the rest of his time.The advances continue to come “little by little,” says Lassalette. Every week, there are “returns” – the medical term for restored functions that were lost as a result of a spinal injury. The window for improvement following such injuries, Lassalette says, is three years.”I just have to realize that it’s slow going,” he says. “Your spinal cord is truly the original fiber-optic cable, given to you by God himself. When that cable is damaged, what happens is the messages don’t get through. The recovery is a gradual process. More and more gets through every day, but you can’t overload the cable. It’s kind of like when you go to dial and all lines are busy.”
The tackle was a routine stop – the same kind of tackle that Lassalette, a veteran of the game of rugby for 19 years, had made hundreds of times before. Head up. Shoulders down. Legs churning. The play happened midway through a July 16 match at Wagner Park between the Gentlemen of Aspen’s Old Boys and the Old Boys team from Boulder. Following a penalty, Boulder sat just 10 yards out from Aspen’s try zone.When play resumed, the Boulder side tapped the ball through the mark to a player running at full speed. With three teammates flanking him, Lassalette stepped up and thrust his 6-foot-2 frame into the oncoming runner to halt the try. Then darkness. A long blink, as Lassalette describes it. Then nothing but blue sky. On the ground, Lassalette says he tried to yell out to one of his teammates. What felt like a yell to him, however, was hardly more than a whisper.”I just called over to him and said, ‘I can’t move and I can’t feel anything,” says Lassalette. “He looked over and saw my arms and legs folded over myself like a rag doll thrown in the corner. It’s not a natural way anyone would land. Your body naturally retracts your arms back. There’s some kind of reaction or response or reflex.”The bruise to the spinal cord between his C3 and C4 vertebrae didn’t halt Lassalette’s ability to breathe – a common consequence of such injuries – but the emergency medical technicians who arrived on scene still wanted to place an oxygen mask over Lassalette’s mouth and nose.”But I didn’t want the oxygen mask covering my mouth because that was the only thing that really worked,” Lassalette says. The emergency technicians, noting that Lassalette was breathing pretty well, opted for an oxygen tube under the nose.
When he talks of July 16, Lassalette repeatedly utters how lucky he was. One of the most common repercussions of an upper spinal cord bruise is that the body’s autonomic nervous system – which controls and regulates all of the body’s involuntary functions – can disengage to varying degrees. Simple commands like the brain’s involuntary message to the diaphragm to breathe can get cut off. Blood pressure can spike and dip because the nervous system is unable to regulate blood cells. Body temperature can shift erratically. The heart may be unable to hold a normal pulse.In Lassalette’s case, the loss of autonomic functions was minimal; there was some diminished swallow function. Since the injury, Lassalette has also dealt with minor blood pressure problemsLassalette says he was lucky because of the expediency and precision of the medical personnel at Aspen Valley Hospital during the crucial window of time immediately following the injury.Within an hour, Lassalette was hooked up to an IV and receiving a steroid to help stop the bleeding in his spinal cord. Shortly thereafter, he carefully underwent a series of MRIs, CT scans and X-rays to determine if his spinal cord had stabilized. The harder work came after that. Lassalette’s head doctor at AVH, Thomas St. John, knew that to get the care his patient needed, the best option was Denver’s Craig Hospital – one of the top three spinal cord injury rehabilitation centers in the country. The problem was that Craig only had 35 beds and they were all full.In the meantime, Lassalette was transferred to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs because it has an acute-care wing.
A community then went to bat for one of its own. St. John made a call to the medical staff at Craig to try and get Lassalette admitted. Art Daily, another local lawyer and a friend of Lassalette’s with connections to the law firm that represents Craig, also made a call, as did members of the Gorsuch family, more locals with ties to the hospital.Lassalette was admitted to Craig’s west wing on July 21. A week later, after doctors determined he was ready to begin the rehabilitation process, Lassalette was transferred to the hospital’s east wing.With the community behind him, Lassalette vowed to remain positive as he began the slow process of trying to reclaim his life.His wife says the community’s efforts, undoubtedly, provided hope and energy for their entire family as they dealt with this emotional crisis.”This community is amazing,” she says. “The amount of support that we’ve gotten is incredible. … John was in an extremely positive mental state throughout the whole thing. That kept us going. I don’t think there was a question that John was going to get through this to the best of his ability. First you go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this has happened.’ Eventually, you realize this is the situation and we have to deal with it the best way possible.”
Things started slowly. One morning, Lassalette says, he woke up and was able to move the pinkie finger on his right hand. The next day it was the middle finger on the left hand.Then the thumbs. Then toes and joints. “It didn’t follow a progression,” Lassalette says. “It’s random. I was just grateful whenever I found some trace movement. Once you get a trace movement, they’ll work with you as much as possible to get it controlled, then gain some strength.”While he figured out how to use his body, family friends stepped in to help Kristen deal with the absence of her husband as well as a temporary loss of income.Some people offered places to stay in Denver whenever Kristen and the girls went to visit John. There were also dinners dropped off at the house, and rides, and offers to baby-sit.Lassalette’s favorite story is how members of the rugby team and a group of Kristen’s friends helped the family move in early August from Basalt to their new home on Cemetery Lane in Aspen.”Kristen’s sister flew out from Florida and about 25 friends of hers went to the house and packed the house for the entire day,” Lassalette says. “Two days later the entire rugby team came over and moved us in an hour and 20 minutes. They packed our whole house. There’s nothing more personal than having our house packed, but they were super with that.”To this day, both groups have continued to pick up the slack,” Lassalette adds. “Because I can’t yet do all the things I need to do to provide as a father, people have stepped up to help. I think the real bottom line in this is that I was very fortunate to be involved with two communities – the community of this valley and the community of the rugby team.”The outpouring of community support doesn’t appear to be stopping at any time soon; it was readily apparent Tuesday, Nov. 8, at silent auction and benefit at Belly Up that was organized by close family friends Allison Daily and Chip Seamans.Friends – and friends of friends – packed the local club to bid on items donated by local merchants. There was everything from dental cleanings to jewelry to a signed John Elway jersey.”Really, I have to say what was amazing was how people responded to the letters to the editor in the local papers,” says Daily. “We also put e-mails out, and we started getting phone calls from people. We had people that went and solicited, but we didn’t do much. People just started coming to us.”
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When he was lying on the rugby field in July, Lassalette says his mind was unable to grasp the severity of the situation. It was impossible, Lassalette says, to see what lay ahead.”Everything goes through your head, but it’s in such a way, and in such a barrage that you’re not focusing on anything,” says Lassalette. “There is no way that you can focus on one thing. You’re trying to focus on, ‘Can I move this?’ You’re putting forth this great mental effort, and nothing’s moving.”Now that he is back to moving – to walking, to shaving, to doing buttons and, more important, hugging his daughters and beloved wife – Lassalette says his perspective on life has been forever changed. He sees clearly now. He realizes the importance of every step. The light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter with each day. Kristen, Camille and Ava can certainly see the light, too. It’s impossible not to, Kristen says. To see the crippled body of her husband and the father of her children in a hospital bed in July, and to see him now, four months later, back on his own two feet, is to behold a miracle, she says.”It makes you realize that the small stuff just doesn’t matter. There’s bigger things to worry about,” says Kristen. “This is a life-altering experience. Even if John fully recovers, it’s still life-altering. … I’ve just had the attitude that this is what I’ve been dealt with, and I have to make the best of the situation. I do cry and I look to people to help me make decisions because I have so much on my mind. We are going to get to the other side of this thing. I hope we can get a year from now and say, ‘Look what we went through and look where we are today. Look what’s possible.'” Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com