Long-standing hospital employee beats the odds

Don Chester, trauma patient, St. Mary's Medical Center  

Our-Stories-Don-COne Christmas Eve, Don Chester was training for a triathlon and decided to go on an early morning run. He had no idea that his life was about to change forever.

Just after hitting the mile mark, he was struck by a car that seemingly came out of nowhere. The driver immediately pulled over and called 911. Once the paramedics arrived, Don told them he wanted to be taken to St. Mary’s Medical Center, where he had been employed as an assistant administrator since 1973.

Ironically, Don had been involved in forming the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, which created the trauma system that sends the most critical patients to St. Mary’s – the only trauma center in Northern Palm Beach County.

“I always felt that if I was ever in the position to need trauma care, St. Mary’s was the only place I’d want to be,” says Don, who arrived with a severed spinal cord and shattered leg. “They managed to do whatever was necessary to save my life.”

On Christmas Day, Dr. Alexander Lenard, vice chief of staff and section chief of spine surgery, stabilized Don's spine with metal rods that were screwed into his skull, while Dr. Andrew Snyder, orthopedic surgeon, repaired his fractured leg. However, Don’s injuries were so severe that he had to be put into a medically induced coma for seven weeks. During that time, he was in the Intensive Care Unit under the care of a team of trauma surgeons, led by Dr. Robert Borrego, medical director of trauma services, and the ICU nurses and therapists.

Don_DogWhen Don woke up, the triathlete found out he was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down with limited dexterity in his fingers. It took nearly a year to recover, and he now relies on a wheelchair and his service dog, Pollyanna (a white Labrador Retriever), to help him get around.

“When I saw Polly for the first time, I remember thinking she was the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen,” Don says.

Despite his circumstances, he always stays positive and focuses on what he can do, not what he can’t. He can pretty much do everything anyone else can, just in a different way. For example, instead of a regular bicycle, Don rides a hand-cycle bike. He enjoys staying active to help improve his strength and increase his mobility.

About one year after the accident, Don went back to work at St. Mary’s as an assistant administrator, his responsibilities shifting slightly to accommodate his needs. He feels lucky to have a job that can be done well in a wheelchair, in a hospital where every doorway, elevator, ramp and bathroom is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“A roofer would have to be trained into a whole new profession,” Don remarks.

Best of all, he’s able to bring Polly to work with him. For the last 10 years, she’s been by his side, helping him perform tasks like opening doors and picking up dropped items. She’s become somewhat of a celebrity around the hospital and in the community.

“You have to have no ego,” Don jokes. “Pretty much everybody says hello to her first.”

He and Polly even meet with patients at St. Mary’s who have been permanently disabled to give them hope and show them first-hand the benefits of a service dog.

After more than 40 years at St. Mary’s, Don remains incredibly grateful to the hospital staff for saving his life. He lives by two mottos: “You may not be responsible for being knocked down, but you are responsible for getting back up, and, "There is no finish line."