UAE: Paralysed ‘Polish Fighter’ walks out of hospital after six months

Posted on 26-02-2022

A freak accident on board a ship left Jaroslaw Pieczonka bedridden with three fractures to his spinal cord

When Jaroslaw Pieczonka boarded a ship in Malta — 4000 nautical miles away from the UAE — in August last year, he never imagined the horror that awaited him.

The special operations soldier and an ex-policemen from Gdansk, Poland, had decided to retire early from service and joined the cruise ship as their maritime security operator. He felt it was finally time to enjoy life in the easy lane as the ship set off on the Malta-Suez-Red Sea corridor.

But fate had other plans.

A freak accident on board left the free-spirited man paralysed from the neck down with three fractures on his back, and staring at the terrifying prospect of spending the rest of his life helpless and immobile in bed.

But Pieczonka, had an iron will and thanks to a complex surgery and exhaustive rehabilitation regimes extended to him at a Sharjah hospital, he defied all odds to stand up and walk unassisted after just six months.

Sharing his inspiring tale of agony and triumph, Jaroslaw said: “The accident happened on August 17, as the vessel was drifting. I went for a shower before conducting my watch, but the shower enclosure - unfortunately — had no anti-skid rubber mat. When the ship took a massive roll and pitch on the rough seas, I slipped. I managed to grab hold of the safety bar, but it came off and I crashed on the floor. I was unconscious for about 15 to 20 minutes. After regaining consciousness, I experienced a lot of pain, but somehow managed to get myself onto my bed on the bunk.”

After a bit, Jaroslaw’s team leader came up to see him and requested him to complete his watch and rest later.

Jaroslaw had numbness in his leg, but dragged himself to duty that night even though he was in great pain and discomfort.

“Small accidents happen all the time on the ship. We simply brush it off and move on. However, I felt different after the fall. I could not do my watch and was sent back to my room. I fell asleep exhausted and in pain.

“When I woke up, I could not feel anything from my neck down. I felt like my chest was pulled up with a tight belt. I could not even go to the washroom. My team members tried to help me as much as they could. But there was not much they could do onboard.”

Limited resources

In the absence of an X-ray, the ship doctor who examined Jaroslaw ruled out any fracture. However Jaroslaw was not convinced and consulted a doctor in the USA. However, since he was away from the mainland, the audio and video quality wasn’t great making communication difficult.

“The ship’s captain then decided that I needed to disembark at the Fujairah port in the UAE,” said Jaroslaw.

He was taken off the ship and admitted to the emergency room at a hospital there. After two days he was referred to the NMC Royal Hospital in Sharjah.

Dr Bobby Jose, clinical administrator and specialist, neurosurgery and neurointerventionist, NMC Royal Hospital, Sharjah who attended on Jaroslaw said: “The fall left him with three fractures on his cervical spine. He was completely paralysed neck down and wasn’t all able to move his hands or legs. The delay of seven days resulted in further complications of severe compression at multiple areas of the spine. On his day of arrival on August 25, I was concerned about the path to a complete recovery.

Dr Jose said, “Evaluation with an MRI scan of the spine showed severe compression at C3-C4 and C4-C5 and behind the C4 body and also at C6-C7 areas requiring surgical management. He underwent C3-C4 and C4-C5 and C6-C7 discectomy and C4 corpectomy and fusion and fixation on August 29.”

The soldier in Jaroslaw was not one to take things lying down. He was preparing to wage a battle – a battle to recovery.

“Jaroslaw tolerated the complex surgery well and with sheer willpower coupled with effort by the advanced physiotherapy team, he managed to stage a remarkable recovery. He was able to sit all by himself by the end of the third month and was walking with minimal support at the end of the fourth month of his arrival at this hospital,

“He refused to give up and asked for more each time he would hit a physiotherapy benchmark to recovery,” said Dr Jose.

His determination to recover was so strong that the hospital staff nicknamed him Polish Fighter.

Dr Jose said his team of physiotherapists carried out extensive mobilisation deploying a completely new kind of virtual-reality based special programme. It helped him effectively regain strength in his limbs. Undergoing vigorous physiotherapy regimes, the Polish Fighter finally could walk unaided to take his flight home after six months.

Dr Jose said: “Jaroslaw stayed in the hospital even after he lost his job and ran out of his insurance cover as he made considerable progress and felt the quality of care and concern among his caregivers were optimal.”

The hospital contacted the Polish embassy once Jaroslaw was fit to travel. The officials came forward to help and finally, Jaroslaw was able to fly back to Gdansk on February 17.

A euphoric Jaroslaw expressed his joy at making a near-complete recovery and expressed his tearful gratitude for the entire team at NMC whom he says was like a family to him. He said, “I am eternally grateful to Dr Bobby Jose for helping me back on my feet. When I lay in bed paralysed, I knew how difficult my path to recovery would be. However, every person I encountered made it look like I will recover completely and their smiles gave me hope. They chatted, joked and made my days brighter.”

He said, “I am not familiar with the Middle Eastern culture or religion. I’m a born and practising Catholic. I relied on my faith to get through this ordeal. But when I saw all these people from different parts of the world of different faiths working together to help me heal, I realised God is one, but with different names.”

Jaroslaw said he was going home a different man with a stronger resolve.

NMC Healthcare CEO Michael Brenden Davis said, “Jaroslaw’s optimism, grit and determination to make a complete recovery was remarkable. His case will be used as an example of hope for chronic care and long-term care patients and providers, alike. I remain grateful to the doctors, physiotherapists, nurses and caregivers who brought about this miraculous recovery. And to Jaroslaw who serves as an inspiration to anyone suffering from spinal trauma.”