From a young age, Douglas Nielsen did everything with his hands.
The avid piano player soon graduated to disassembling car engines with his father.
As a student-athlete at West High, Nielson was a pole-vaulter, a wrestler and a swimmer — complementary activities to his advanced math and science classes before his graduation in 2003.
On Tuesday, April 16, the 28-year-old spoke to more than 75 people at a Tracy Hospital Foundation meeting about the dramatic changes he’s endured since a severing his spinal cord in a November 2003 car crash in Tracy.
Nielsen is paralyzed from his shoulders down and has limited use of his hands and arms.
He was the passenger in the vehicle of an alleged drunken driver, but he wasn’t drinking himself at the time of the crash.
“My friends had moved on, and had done other things, and I knew I wasn’t going to college,” Nielsen said. “I had to face life, and it was really hard. To know that whatever I thought life was going to be, wasn’t what it was going to be.”
During the years after his crash, Nielsen was gradually weaned off ventilator dependency and regained the ability to speak and interact with people again.
In between his stories of fishing and camping as a child, Nielson’s sense of humor and personality seemed to captivate the room.
Nielson acknowledged that his situation “is something that happened to me, and now I have to deal with it.”
The recent installation of an overhead safety patient lift in his home has dramatically improved his living conditions and care, according to Nielson.
He first used the lift as a patient at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital.
The apparatus is a four-point structure set up over a bed. A bar and winch move side to side along a track supporting a body sling, in which the patient rests. The winch can pick up the patient so nurses are able to change bedding, roll the patient in bed or put him or her in a wheelchair.
Safety for patients is greatly increased, as it is for nurses who don’t have to strain to move them.
“Before I had it, I was forced to have one person who would lift me up and put me in bed, but they had to be strong enough,” he said. “When I got my ceiling lift, … I can now go out with my friends, and when we get back they can put me in my bed and I don’t have to worry about them dropping me.”
Such independence, coupled with the reduced fear of being hurt while moving, are reasons the Hospital Foundation is raising $100,000 to begin putting lifts in every patient room in the hospital, according to Stuart Rogoff, executive director of the foundation.
He said the hospital will match the foundation’s monetary goal if it is met by Dec. 31. The entire project is expected to cost between $800,000 and $1 million.
Dr. Sunil Patel, the chief of medical staff at Sutter Tracy, said patients who use the overhead lift can “experience increase in their attitude, and it makes you happier.”
Patel is also Nielson’s primary doctor.
“If you are in one position you can get sores, so being lifted in and out of bed and into a chair will improve a patient’s mobility,” he said. “Personal quality (of life) will improve, safety will improve and his medical condition, physically and mentally, will improve.”