Zach's story

Zach wearing a dull green pull-over hoodie and sitting next to his hospital bed.

Engineering the road to recovery

A New York winter getaway with a friend took a wrong turn for Zach Wilk. On February 15, the 26-year-old was involved in a snowmobile accident. He was severely injured and quickly admitted to the nearest hospital, which happened to be in the neighboring state of Vermont.

Zach sustained multiple broken bones, including his pelvis, thigh and lower leg. He had intestinal bleeding and, to prevent clots, surgeons placed a filter on his heart.

His family and girlfriend, Lindsay, drove from Camp Hill, PA to Vermont and were with Zach as he endured 20 hours of surgery to repair injuries.

While in Vermont, Zach experienced intensive care unit delirium, a disturbance of consciousness and cognition, and spent an entire day intubated to open his airways and maximize his breathing. “It was really scary,” said Zach. “My family had a difficult time handling it. My girlfriend Lindsay is an emergency department nurse and she was the only one who could handle things.”

A month later, Zach stabilized enough to travel home to Pennsylvania. He began at a skilled nursing center, but an unexpected gastrointestinal bleed caused another setback. To overcome barriers with his insurance company, Zach’s attending physicians successfully advocated for his transfer to Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to help him stabilize medically and finish his orthopedic surgeries.

Zach arrived at the Penn State Health Rehabilitation Hospital on March 12. He remembers trying to stay positive.

He was motivated for rehabilitation, having actively participated in all therapies during his hospital and skilled nursing stays. His family was excited to learn how to help with all of his care. They were also modifying his home in anticipation of Zach returning to it. A physician-led team of nurses and therapists created a plan to help him get there.

Zach wasn’t even able to stand after his surgery. His short-term rehabilitation goals were to gain mobility and independence. His long-term goal is to get as close to “normal” as possible, back to hikes and kayaking and, eventually, his job as a bridge engineer.

Through a series of strengthening and conditioning exercises, Zach graduated from using a transfer board to move from one surface to another, to using parallel bars and finally a walker as he regained his strength and endurance. He walked short distances, about 20 to 30 feet, at first due to wearing stabilizing boots on both legs. Occupational therapy helped him navigate personal care and household tasks because he could bear weight on his left leg and right arm, but not on his right leg.

In a second, unexpected twist, Zach’s family was unable to participate in his therapy program due to the coronavirus pandemic. Within the first week of his rehabilitation stay, the hospital closed to visitors. Despite his family not physically being at the hospital, they stayed connected using FaceTime. Zach’s physicians tried to give him hope along the way and were encouraged by his progress.

Zach walked out of the rehabilitation hospital on April 4. He will continue therapy with home health services.

“I achieved most of the goals I originally had, and I even surpassed goals I thought I would not achieve. I’m on pace to continue my journey,” he said.