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Young mother’s harrowing injury ends in amazing recovery

OHSU team mobilized for emergency spinal surgery that reversed paralysis, returned Beaverton woman to her baby in just a few days
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Chase and Gabrielle Zielinski sit at home Tuesday with their daughter, Sophie. On July 30, Gabrielle was rushed to OHSU for emergency spinal surgery that reversed paralysis that occurred from a simple stretch. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)
Chase and Gabrielle Zielinski sit at home Tuesday with their daughter, Sophie. On July 30, Gabrielle was rushed to OHSU for emergency spinal surgery that reversed paralysis that occurred from a simple stretch. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

A Beaverton woman is back home with her husband and 4-month-old daughter after a harrowing medical emergency left her briefly paralyzed — before a successful spinal surgery at Oregon Health & Science University.

Despite it all, Gabrielle Zielinski called it an amazing experience thanks to the care she received at OHSU.

“I feel like there’s not enough I could do to say, ‘Thank you,’” she said, pausing to hold back tears. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to walk, but I woke up and found my legs moving. Every day got better and better. Everyone was in shock that I was doing so well, and I’m just really grateful.”

Her spine surgeon credits teamwork from a wide array of OHSU specialists and health care professionals who assembled quickly late at night to diagnose and effectively treat an exceptionally rare spinal injury.

Josiah Orina, M.D. (OHSU)
Josiah Orina, M.D. (OHSU)

“This was a credit to a large group of health professionals, including nurses, residents and an on-call anesthesiologist who mobilized in the middle of the night to help,” said Josiah Orina, M.D., associate professor of neurological surgery in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Zielinski agreed.

“It felt like there were 20 people in that room,” she said. “It was stressful, but everyone was so nice and ready to take care of me.”

Sudden paralysis

The incident began the afternoon of Sunday, July 30, when Zielinski, 32, used a foam roller while stretching to work out a kink in her neck.

“Usually, I can get some good pops out,” she said.

Moments later, something felt terribly wrong.

“The best way I can describe it is if someone took an ice pick and shoved it into every part of my body,” she said. “It was the worst, most excruciating pain I’ve ever had in my life.”

It was not only painful, but she discovered that she had lost the ability to move her arms and legs.

Her husband, Chase Zielinski, called 9-1-1.

The ambulance delivered her to OHSU because of the health system’s expertise in treating neurological conditions.

In short order, the team spotted the source of the problem through magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI: a blood vessel had burst, forming a clot the size of an earthworm that was impinging on seven sections of her spine.

Orina said he had never seen such a severe epidural hematoma — meaning blood accumulating at the spine — in a patient not involved in a high-impact motor vehicle crash or football injury.

It was clear that she would need surgery, and quickly.

“It was a very scary moment,” Zielinski recalled. “I wondered, am I going to die? Am I going to make it through surgery?”

Orina knew the team had to relieve pressure on the spine. The team moved her from the emergency department into an operating room, beginning the procedure at 11 p.m. that same day. It took an hour to carefully wash out the clot.

A team effort

Zielinski remembers waking up early the next morning as she was being moved into the neurological intensive care unit to recover.

The pain in her body was all but gone, and her ability to move her arms and legs steadily improved.

Within a couple of days, she was the rare intensive care unit patient who was able to walk the halls on her own. As a breast-feeding mom, she received help from OHSU’s labor and delivery staff to ensure she had everything she needed to safely pump and store milk. Staff from the OHSU pharmacy also visited to make sure the dosage of her pain medication was compatible with breast feeding.

One week later, Saturday, Aug. 5, she was ready to be discharged — to return home to her husband, two cats and infant daughter, Sophie.

But not before her mother brought a dozen jars of homemade jam to distribute to her care team.

“I really just had the best group of doctors. The nurses were amazing, just the sweetest group of people,” she said. “It was like I had friends who came and helped me.”

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