The news was the kind commonly termed tragic, yet the communication from Amy Van Dyken-Rouen’s hospital room in Arizona saturated the social media universe with positive vibes.
The former Olympic swimmer smiled in photos. She acknowledged media accounts of the ATV accident that severed her spinal cord.
She joked on Twitter that she’d now get great seats at sporting events while adding the hashtags #bringMyOwnChair and #goodParking2. She promised to post video after her arrival at Craig Hospital in her hometown of Denver.
Can such a relentlessly upbeat outlook, her total engagement with an army of actual and virtual supporters, prove therapeutic? Could an iron will and indomitable spirit that produced six gold medals aid recovery?
Although the idea that a positive attitude more effectively repairs the spinal cord may be “a reach,” it does pay dividends, says Dr. Mike Boninger, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Rehabilitation Institute.
“Where the huge difference comes in is with the recovery process,” he said. “You have to learn to deal with a body that doesn’t do what it used to do. You have to learn how to propel a wheelchair. You have to learn how to transfer, how to instruct a caregiver to help you. Every single thing you have to learn involves a challenge to you.”
Experts emphasize that each case is different and generalizations don’t always hold. But more engaged patients gain a higher set of skills, and research has shown those skills tend to lead to more significant participation in the community, Boninger said.
On the physical side, stress and depression have been shown to compromise every system in the body, says Dan Gottlieb, a Philadelphia-based psychologist — and, since a 1979 accident, a quadriplegic — who also hosts a radio show and writes extensively.
As one example, he points to studies that have shown patients who enter surgery with a positive attitude tend to have less pain afterward and recover more quickly.
“So yes, attitude is everything,” he said. “That said, you can’t wake up and say, ‘I’m going to have a good attitude.’ Who we are at the core doesn’t change.”
Sometimes, Boninger points out, this intersection of attitude and recovery can make for a challenging topic.
Though negative thoughts in the wake of a jarring medical diagnosis — anything from cancer to spinal cord injury — are normal, the notion of positivity’s healing properties remains strong.
“My wife is a breast cancer survivor,” said Boninger, “and it would drive her crazy when people say you have to have a positive attitude — as if she’d be failing her family in some way if she couldn’t maintain a positive attitude and as if that would impact her recovery.”
Dave Denniston, a world record holder and NCAA champion swimmer who suffered a 2005 spinal cord injury that left him without the use of his legs, heard a similar mantra.
“For me, the big phrase that drove me crazy was, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ ” Denniston said. “There’s some truth to that, but you’re also in a situation where you can make your own reason. Amy sees that now, too. She’s going to make a reason to make this something unique to her, to use it as a platform to catapult into the next phase of her life.”
Denniston, now a 35-year-old Paralympics swimming coach in Colorado Springs, sees spinal-cord injury patients falling into two categories: those who ask ‘Why me?’ and a smaller group who decide early on to make the most of their unexpected circumstances.
“You realize when you’re not able to use your whole body, that the way you carry your body impacts the way the rest of your day goes,” he said. “When I’d get up at Craig Hospital, I took a little bit of pride making sure my chin was up, having a smile on my face.”
Support systems can play a big role in shaping attitude.
At 16, Joe White suffered a spinal-cord injury in a bicycle accident that produced a grim early diagnosis — loss of limb movement that, at best, might leave him able to shrug his shoulders. Now, at 32, he has full function of his arms and hands.
White, who was still in high school when his injury occurred, had a close network of family and community that helped him maintain a positive outlook. As a high-profile athlete and media figure, Van Dyken-Rouen already has experienced a community outpouring far beyond the norm.
That initial attention cuts both ways, White says. It provides early encouragement but eventually can leave a void.
“When that drops off, it can be a thing to adjust to all by itself,” said White, now the community outreach director for the Denver-based Spinal Cord Recovery Project, a rehabilitation facility. “There’s definitely a process. When you have an injury like this, you go from going full speed to a dead stop, and you really have to look at life differently.”
Social media hadn’t yet emerged when White suffered his injury, but he did his best to project a positive attitude — as much or even more for his family than for himself. That Van Dyken-Rouen has pledged to keep thousands of fans and followers apprised of her progress could serve as even greater motivation, he says.
“The fact that she’s on Twitter, posting pictures and all that, I think it’s a great sign she’s healthy aside from the trauma to her spinal cord,” White said. “She has an opportunity here to be a figure that the country, if not the world, is watching.”
Gottlieb, the psychologist, says that such give and take — including the joking around — serves a dual purpose.
“By reassuring others that she’s OK, she’s also reassuring herself,” Gottlieb said. “She’s telling the story of her life right now. And the only truth we can tell about our lives is what we are experiencing.”
Whatever the effect Van Dyken-Rouen’s outlook has on her own recovery, Denniston predicts that it will expand to encompass those around her — and not just through social media.
“I do think Amy’s attitude is not only positive, but a contagious one,” he said. “When she goes to Craig, a lot of people will gravitate to her. I think she’ll have a huge impact beyond herself because of who she is.
“That’s going to be the cool thing to watch.”
By Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post