Skydiver who broke back and pelvis makes full recovery with help from Jackson South trauma, neuro, and orthopedic teams
By: Krysten Brenlla
For Jennifer Lemieux, 34, she couldn’t get enough of the rush she experienced every time she went skydiving.
“I loved the way skydiving made me feel; it was freeing,” Lemieux said. “I really felt alive.”
However, on October 16, 2022, after jumping out of a plane, Lemieux’s parachute malfunctioned after she failed to perform the emergency procedures.
Her main and backup parachutes were open, but were tangled, causing her to lose control and freefall.
“I remember that it was a pretty windy day, and I wasn’t able to brake properly because I had no control of my canopy,” Lemieux said. “I even had that thought of ‘ok, I think I’m dying today.’”
Fortunately, she landed on a dirt field, which helped to break her fall.
Nearby skydivers saw the accident and called emergency medical services for help. Within minutes, Lemieux was airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson South in critical condition, with fractures in her pelvis and spine.
“My first reaction when I landed was, ‘I’m still alive, and I’m not paralyzed,” Lemieux said. “I didn’t even lose consciousness. I felt extremely lucky to be alive.”
Upon arrival, the Ryder Trauma team at Jackson South immediately stabilized her spine and pelvis, and prepared her for emergency neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery.
“When Jennifer first arrived to Jackson South, she was in a serious amount of pain,” said Stephen Shelby Burks, Jr., MD, a UHealth – University of Miami Health System neurosurgeon and spinal cord surgeon at Jackson South. “She was extremely lucky that she did not suffer a spinal cord injury; she had a little compression in the spinal cord, but luckily, she presented with no neurological deficit.”
As soon as Lemieux was stabilized, Dr. Burks and his team performed an emergency thoracic fusion, a procedure to fuse the segments of the thoracic spine together with screws, which stabilized her fracture. The team also carefully removed the bone fragment that was pressing against her spinal cord.
“Jennifer is a survivor. Being able to come out of that skydiving injury still walking is incredible,” Dr. Burks said. “Most patients with thoracic fractures causing spinal cord compression are, unfortunately, left paralyzed.”
A few days after her first procedure, Lemieux saw the inside of the operating room again, where the orthopedic team repaired her pelvis.
After two successful procedures, Lemieux spent two days in Jackson South’s intensive care unit, before she was transferred to another area in the hospital.
“Recovery in the hospital was extremely challenging for me,” Lemieux said. “I could barely take two steps without feeling immense pain. I spent the entire time in a hospital gown. But, I celebrated small wins – like the first time I was able to put socks on by myself. It was challenging, but I was determined to be independent again.”
After spending 12 days in the hospital, Lemieux was discharged and transferred to an inpatient unit at Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center for The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at UHealth/Jackson Memorial.
When she first arrived, she was wheelchair-bound, experiencing weakness in her arms and legs, and struggling with balance and mobility.
However, with the help of her physical therapists at Lynn Rehabilitation Center, Lemieux surpassed all of her therapy goals.
“I was doing so well that one week of rehabilitation therapy was enough for me to go home,” Lemieux said. “It was a difficult process, but I was able to do all of my exercises with no issues.”
Upon discharge from Lynn Rehabilitation Center, Lemieux spent two months in a wheelchair at home, and had to learn how to perform day-to-day activities wheelchair-bound. She also required a back brace for three months.
By December, Lemieux hit a major milestone – she transitioned from needing a wheelchair to using a walker to get around. One week after that, she no longer needed an assistive device at all – she was able to walk on her own.
“Being able to walk again was my birthday gift,” Lemieux said. “I didn’t even tell my friends – I wanted to surprise them by showing them I could walk on my own.”
Today, almost a year after her accident, Lemieux lives an independent life. She experiences minimal pain in her spine and pelvis, and has no limitations.
She’s grateful for the teams at Jackson South and Lynn Rehabilitation Center for their care, and for giving her a second chance at life – one where, six months after her accident, she could jump out of a plane again and feel that same, familiar rush.
“I can’t say thank you enough to the teams at Jackson who took care of me,” Lemieux said. “I knew I was in good hands the entire time I was there.”
“I’m so grateful to be where I’m at today, and it’s all because of them.”