The irony isn’t lost on Sergeant First Class (SFC) Michael Cahill. As a paratrooper in the United States Army, Mr. Cahill had survived numerous jumps and missions in Iraq unscathed only to suffer a crushing injury during a training jump away from combat at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in December 2012.
“We were completing a training jump with the Uruguayan jump team when I had a high-altitude entanglement with another paratrooper,” the 31-year-old New York City resident recalls. “My chute collapsed at 85 feet and I burned in (the ground) like a lawn dart.”
The end result was devastating: a shattered, detached pelvis and a broken sacrum (tailbone).
“I couldn’t move, the nerves that controlled my leg movement were crushed like spaghetti,” SFC Cahill said.
He was rushed to Womack Medical Center near Fort Bragg, where doctors inserted a plate to address his back fracture and screws to reattach his pelvis. He remained in the hospital for two weeks before he was transferred to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Dix.
Due to the severity and complexity of his injuries, SFC Cahill needed months of demanding physical therapy and rehabilitation, which he began at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton. Luckily for SFC Cahill, the RWJ Fitness and Wellness Center opened in New Brunswick gave him a new option to continue his recovery.
The Center features a state-of-the-art rehabilitation area that includes both physical and occupational therapy. Licensed by the State of New Jersey, RWJ’s physical therapists are trained and certified in a variety of medical specialties, such as vestibular rehabilitation, aquatics, pediatric lymphedema and Lee Silverman Voice Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease, giving patients access to the most advanced and comprehensive treatments available.
By March of this year, SFC Cahill still endured tremendous pain, but he was mobile enough to begin an aggressive physical therapy program at RWJ.
“The first time we met Michael, we realized that he was extremely focused and there was a huge drive to heal and return to a better quality of life,” said Ashwini Korgaonkar, PT, OCS, a board-certified orthopedic physical therapist at RWJ. “Our goals were clearly based on the APFT (Army Physical Fitness Tests) requirements. Michael and I broke down the requirements to the smallest levels and started working toward each of them.”
To return SFC Cahill to his role as a paratrooper, RWJ’s physical therapists focused on vigorous strengthening, stretching and agility exercises. Each physical therapy session was meticulously organized to push SFC Cahill to his maximum exertion levels to achieve the most benefits. This included hipstrengthening exercises, infrared massage, one-legged presses, hopping exercises and working on the agility ladder.
“There was a huge emphasis on core control as well,” Ms. Korgaonkar explained. “Michael’s therapy would last anywhere from 2-4 hours a session, including an hour of walking with a ruck sack on various terrains, and later, running.”
I expect to return to active duty – I want to be at the level I was before!
SFC Cahill added, “Gradually, I was able to walk much faster and up to 4 miles with my ruck sack.”
SFC Cahill credits the state-of-the-art equipment, such as the pool, at the RWJ Fitness and Wellness Center with aiding his recovery. After moving from New Jersey to New York City, he made it a priority to continue his physical therapy at RWJ.
“I was able to accomplish much more there than I could on my own,” he said.
When SFC Cahill first arrived at RWJ, he was on crutches. Upon discharge, he could run up to 6.7 miles following just 12 weeks of physical therapy. SFC Cahill’s goal is to complete a 5K. Inspired to become a paratrooper by the acclaimed HBO series Band of Brothers, SFC Cahill plans to return to the Army.
“I expect to return to active duty – I want to be at the level I was before,” he said.