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April 24, 2018

Emergency Medicine Physician Back to Work After Accident That Left Him Paralyzed

By In the Loop

After Daniel Grossman, M.D., was paralyzed in a biking accident, he needed to learn how to do everything, including care for patients, in a new way. He’s adapted to this new reality with incredible determination, humility — and speed. Less than five months after losing the ability to walk, he’s returned to work at Mayo Clinic’s Emergency Department.

After Daniel Grossman, M.D., was paralyzed in a biking accident, he needed to learn how to do everything — including care for patients — in a new way.


Daniel Grossman, M.D., was in command and control mode, assessing a 36-year-old who'd fallen off his mountain bike on the Cuyuna Trail in northern Minnesota. No one had seen the fall, which cracked the man's helmet and left him unable to feel or move his legs.

Having worked for a decade as an emergency medicine physician, Dr. Grossman understood the gravity of the situation. But it was also completely new to him. Because this time, Dr. Grossman wasn't only the physician. He was also the patient.

"I knew enough to know it was bad," Dr. Grossman says of those initial moments after his fall. He gave his phone to a friend and started directing calls. First paramedics, then family, friends, and the colleague who was expecting him to show up for a shift in the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus the next day.

He didn't make that shift. But less than five months later, Dr. Grossman would return to his role in the Emergency Department, reclaiming an important piece of his identity.

"Ultimately, this is a story about getting back to doing things," he tells us. And focusing on those things — work, independence, making a difference — has propelled Dr. Grossman forward in an extraordinary journey marked by hard work, determination and a willingness to accept a radically new normal.

A devastating diagnosis

Dr. Grossman was taken to North Memorial Medical Center, where imaging exams revealed a grim prognosis. He'd fractured a vertebra in his spine, resulting in a devastating spinal cord injury. An emergency surgery performed that night wouldn't change what Dr. Grossman had recognized at some level while lying on the bike trail. And by the day after the accident, he says, "I knew I wasn't going to walk again."

As Dr. Grossman began adjusting to this reality, a steady stream of visitors made their way to his side. His brother Aaron, a neuro-interventionalist practicing in Cincinnati, was at his bedside by the time he came out of surgery. His parents, who had been traveling in Europe, flew to Minnesota — and stayed for six months. Friends and colleagues came, too, from Mayo Clinic; St. Olaf College, his undergraduate alma mater; and Medtronic, where he'd led efforts to improve health care for underserved patients around the world.

Dr. Grossman was buoyed by their support and discovered one of the most important lessons he's learned on the other side of the bedside. "As a physician, I had underestimated the importance of a patient's support network," he says. Now, surrounded by love and encouragement, he understood its significance.

Days after surgery, his condition stabilized and it was time to start rehabilitation. Dr. Grossman chose to begin the next phase of his journey at Mayo Clinic. "My brother and parents considered rehabilitation options around the country and we ultimately chose Mayo for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's a place of comfort," he says. "It's family. It's home."

Radical acceptance

Dr. Grossman's homecoming put him in an unfamiliar position. He was returning to Mayo Clinic not as a physician, but as a patient. He recognized that accepting this new role would be essential to his recovery — both for himself and those caring for him. So he insisted that his care team call him Daniel, not Dr. Grossman, to emphasize that when it came to his recovery, they were the experts.

"Being a physician patient, people are going to expect that you know more than you do about your injury," Dr. Grossman says. "But I'm an ER doc, not a spinal cord doc. It was important to be humble about that."

At Mayo, Dr. Grossman began the difficult work of learning to navigate the world in a new way. He needed to learn how to move through life in a wheelchair, and how to master the many "transfers" that would be essential to his independence — bed to chair, chair to car, and floor to chair after the inevitable fall. It was demanding and draining work, physically and mentally. But Dr. Grossman tells us that every day he "showed up and worked hard and said thank you to the people who were helping me get to where I wanted to be." There was no self-pity, no time wasted wishing things were other than they were. There was simply radical acceptance, a concept Dr. Grossman discovered and embraced early in his journey.

"That doesn't mean I haven't set my sights on walking again or hope for a miracle of science," he tells us. "It means that I recognize where I am and what it means for me and my loved ones and friends. It means I embrace where I am and what I have to do to move forward."

After 64 days of working with the physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians, nursing staff, and therapists of Mayo Clinic's Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, Dr. Grossman was ready to take the next step in his rehabilitation. He transferred to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute's Transitional Rehabilitation Program in the Twin Cities, which offered a longer-term, high-intensity inpatient rehabilitation program. There, he continued to hone the skills he'd need to get back home, back to work, back to the life waiting outside of the hospital. "My goal was to return to independence as quickly as possible," says Dr. Grossman. That included learning to drive an adapted vehicle and passing a driver's test, milestones he achieved during his stay at Courage Kenny.

Ever onward

After more than four months of therapy, Dr. Grossman was nearly ready to return to work in the Emergency Department. But first, he'd need to learn to perform physical exams and procedures from a seated position. He'd reached out for tips from other emergency medicine physicians who use wheelchairs and watched videos to see how they adapted their practice.

But preparing to go back to work would require much more than watching videos. Dr. Grossman would need to learn to do familiar things in different ways. And he'd need his colleagues' help. This presented another lesson for someone accustomed to doing things for and by himself. "I'm learning that people are willing to help and actually really want to help," Dr. Grossman says. That included several of his colleagues, who volunteered to practice exams and procedures with him in the Emergency Department with equipment from the Mayo Clinic Multidisciplinary Simulation Center. Not long afterward, some of those same colleagues would partner with him during his first shifts back in the Emergency Department.

"I had to begin that practice with humility, recognizing that things were not going to work perfectly right away," Dr. Grossman says. "My colleagues have been incredibly supportive."

So have some of his patients. While many react with surprise or confusion when Dr. Grossman wheels into an exam room, others seem relieved, as though they're comforted by being cared for by a provider who has clearly faced his own health hurdles. "One patient said she thought you have to go through something yourself to be a good doctor," Dr. Grossman says. "I don't believe that, but I do agree that having a personal experience gives you a perspective that others might lack."

For Dr. Grossman, that new perspective is a gift that has transformed the way he cares for patients. "There's no question that this accident will have a long-term impact on my ability to be a better physician," he says. "It's made me more empathetic and compassionate and made me much more aware of my patients' needs."

It's also made him more aware of the challenges within the health care system and more committed to finding a way to address them. "It's a difficult system to navigate," Dr. Grossman says. "I now have a unique voice. I want to use it to help humanize the system."

We have no doubt that he will.

You can follow Dr. Grossman's journey on his website. Then use your unique voice to leave a comment below before using this handy social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.


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Tags: Dr. Daniel Grossman, Employee Stories, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Mayo Clinic Multidisciplinary Simulation Center, Mayo Clinic Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, Patient Stories, Spinal Cord Injury

Daniel Grossman you’ve been in my prayers! I’m so incredibly happy for you! You’ve had love and prayers from Cincinnati to Seattle. Your brother loves you beyond words❤️

That is great. I returned to work as a Police Chief after my accident that left me paralyzed from a T7 and T8 injury. Work helped so much in forgetting my injury. Don't know how you do it without a power chair. I was always dropping papers and equipment from my lap. Good Luck to you Dr. Grossman.

My dear you are in my thoughts, I am glad you are well…Take care!

I'm also a Mayo employee who was paralyzed and then came back to work. My accident was 10 years ago, and I'm still here full time. Good luck to you! You seem to have a wonderful attitude.

As a physical therapist, I remember the shock and disbelief I felt when I learned that a wheelchair user I met had been denied entrance into a physical therapy program. As the people whose job it is to help others return to their greatest function and help people adapt to what is needed, how in the world could we not find a way to help someone with a disability find ways to become a therapist? Problem-solving, thinking outside the box, this is what we do. Hearing your story encourages me and confirms that there are ways to do about anything. Well done! A big thank you to you and those who have stepped up to make this success possible!

Am as well a wheelchair user, with L1injury for the past 30years on wheel, my problem is severe pain(spasm)on my lower limbs. Happy for you

I hear something to cheer you up I know most of the people that wrote to you have paralysis and they provably understand you better the me , all my respects for them , that I will to tell you Dr Grossman something that I hear I want to cheer you up!
says : your mission is Bigger than you , God will give you what you need to complete your mission .

Thanks for sharing your courage, strength, and determination. Your story really moved me and inspired me to stay positive. Best Wishes and keep up the good work!

Dear Daniel.
What a wonderful article about you "In the Loop" of April 24, 2018. Your mother sent it to me. I am so proud of you and the person you have become. I believe you will influence the healthcare system in ways you could never have done before this accident. May God, your family, friends, co-workers and patients give you strength and support everyday.
Fr. George Remm

Dear Dr. Daniel Grossman,
My name is David Peres and I'm a C6 quadriplegic portuguese medical resident. I know the challenges of being a health professional and patient as the same time… Wish you all the best! 🙂

david peres

I became paralyzed after several back surgeries over the period of several years, and then fractured my back. This caused the paralyzing. I, too, had to accept and embrace my current situation to continue my life. Self pity was not an option. I have 31 yr old twin boy who live in my home, and I have a care provider 5 hrs per day, 7 days a week, I have a 6 yr of granddaughter ands 2 1/2 yr old grandson who brighten my life. I love my dogs. It’s all good. New chapter in my life. You are an inspiration tome. Thank you.

On this evening's national news on NBC I saw a short story on your accident and work at Mayo. I used to live in Rochester, MN for a number of years, just north of St. Marys Hospital so I was surprised to find that you work at Mayo in Rochester per the directory. I am also originally from that part of MN. Presently I live in Pearblossom, CA and work at St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo, CA. I was surprised to hear such an inspiring story half way across the country. The best to you and God bless. Sister Karen Marie Hoffman

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