Hard Lesson Learned

Short ATV ride ends in serious injury

By Michael Turton

It may be a cliche but it also happens to be true — life can change in an instant. For a very fortunate few, that instant may come with the realization that all their numbers match, making them winners of millions of dollars in a lottery. For 38-year-old Jeff Dousharm, who lives on lower Main Street in Cold Spring, his life-altering moment wasn’t quite that lucky. He broke his neck. 

Dousharm was at his custom-cabinet-making shop in Tivoli, N.Y. on the afternoon of Sept. 15, when he decided it was time to take a break. He went for a ride on his four-wheel ATV.

“It wasn’t even really a ride,” he recalls. “I only went maybe 30 feet.” He drove his ATV slowly up a 5-foot-high mound of dirt. That lack of speed may have been what did him in. When he got to the top of the mound, the ATV rolled, and Dousharm fell off, hitting his head. He was not wearing a helmet. While he felt a lot of pain, he said, “It never crossed my mind that I had broken my neck.”

The halo brace that Jeff Dousharm must wear is secured by four screws drilled into his skull. “Breaking my neck was one thing; that was torture.” Photo by M. Turton

After his fall, he sat up and rested for a few minutes. Luckily his brother Steve was there along with a co-worker, and when his neck began to stiffen, one of them brought him an ice pack. When the pain got more intense, Dousharm decided it was time to go to the Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck. There, doctors gave him the bad news. He had broken C1 and C2, the two vertebrae at the top of the cervical spine. Dousharm remembered that moment all too clearly. “I was scared out of my mind,” he said. He had good reason to be frightened. MDGuidelines.com put the seriousness of the injury in very succinct perspective: “Fracture of the C1 or C2 vertebra can be fatal.”

Medical staff in Rhinebeck stabilized Dousharm, put him on a rigid board, strapped him down, and sent him by ambulance to the Trauma Unit at Albany Medical Center. There, staff kept a close eye on him overnight, watching for any signs of neurological injury. In the morning he was fitted with a “halo” brace — an apparatus that eliminates any movement of the cervical spine, allowing the vertebrae to mend. The halo is secured by four screws, two above the eyes and two above the ears. They are drilled into the skull to a depth of 1/8 inch.

“Breaking my neck was one thing; that was torture,” Dousharm said of the procedure. “I can take a lot of pain, but that was by far the most I’ve been through.” The pain was so bad that Dousharm can only remember the first screw being put in. “It was only a local anesthetic,” he said.

All things considered, Dousharm is now doing well, although day-to-day life has changed dramatically. To bathe, he sits in a tub in 3 or 4 inches of water. His upper body requires a sponge bath; he cannot allow the halo to get wet. He is able to sleep on either his back or his side with the aid of strategically place pillows. And he is actually able to do some work from home — cabinet design via his computer.

Jeff and his faithful companion Bishop, who is not sure what to make of the brace
Photo by M. Turton

He does, however, get very tired as the day progresses. Dousharm’s most difficult task now is one most of us take for granted every day — putting on a shirt. Getting it over the brace is no mean feat. “This is an extra large woman’s athletic shirt,” he said, pointing to what he was wearing. “I have to pull it up from the bottom, like a skirt.” His neighbor, Karen Dunn, customized a shirt for him, allowing it to fit more easily over the brace. She also altered a dress shirt that he intends to wear at his girlfriend Maggie Kirk’s sister’s wedding this weekend in Minnesota. They will be flying out of LaGuardia Airport, and Dousharm was a bit concerned about the 2 ½-hour flight. “The airline said it should be no problem. I just hope I can get past the metal detector,” he said.

Dr. Jeffrey Kauffman is an orthopedic surgeon who lives in Cold Spring and practices at Orthopedic Associates of Dutchess County in Fishkill. “People don’t realize just how dangerous ATVs are. I see a lot of injuries from them,” he said. Kauffman recommends that riders wear a helmet, but he stresses that they don’t necessarily help in an accident such as Dousharm’s. “Helmets are designed to prevent head injuries, concussions … and they are very effective at that up to a certain speed. But they aren’t designed to prevent spinal injuries.”

The halo is an odd, even scary-looking device, one that people are visibly uncomfortable with when they encounter Dousharm. There isn’t much eye contact from other customers as he sits out front of a Main Street cafe sipping his morning coffee.

Even his dog Bishop, a gentle giant of a yellow lab, has had a hard time adjusting. “The first time Bishop saw me with the halo on, he barked at me. He never barks at me!” Dousharm said. “And now, he won’t lick my face like he used to — I think because of the bars on the brace.”

Dousharm says that he will likely ride an ATV again but will wear a helmet from now on. “And I’ll probably start out on flat ground,” he said. He will undoubtedly look at the ATV a little differently in the future as well. “Because you don’t go on main roads, you kind of view them as a toy,” he said. “You just jump on and drive.” As he now knows, even toys can be deadly.

Doctors have not been specific about how long he will have to wear the halo, but Dousharm said it will likely be for eight to 12 more weeks. When he received the bill from the two hospitals, he was almost pleasantly surprised. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought — $1,000 from Northern Dutchess Hospital and $6,000 from Albany,” he said. Unfortunately he canceled his health insurance a few months ago. Ironically, he was told that had he still been covered under insurance, his bill from Northern Dutchess Hospital would have been $6,000.

“The thing I think about the most is that if I had been been paralyzed it would have changed my life and the lives of a lot of people around me,” Dousharm said. “I have nothing to complain about.”

2 thoughts on “Hard Lesson Learned

  1. Jeff that’s looks painful 🙂 Maggie take care of him for two to three months! The wedding was fun!

  2. Jeff, it is really moving to hear what happened to you that day, You have so many people praying that you have a complete recovery. Take your time and don’t let the cares of the world rush you into doing things too soon. Our Jeff broke his neck; when he came back two years ago doing something pretty innocent but it wasn’t as severe as your injuries. He is fine now and we are believing that for you. Give Bishop a hello from us. The best to you in the days ahead.