Trauma Surgeon Puts Critically Injured Athlete Back On Course

Ken was recently interviewed about his accident and his remarkable comeback to the world of triathalons. Watch his story online.

On a crisp fall afternoon, Ken McDonnell, a husband, father and triathlete, decided to hop on his mountain bike for a leisurely ride in Rutland State Park in central Massachusetts. He spent most of the time that day on empty trails and park roads.  Then he got on Route 122, a two-lane highway that runs outside the park, for a short ride to another section of trail.




BMC orthopaedic surgeon Paul Tornetta helped Ken McDonnell regain his fitness lifestyle after a horrific accident nearly cost him his life.

What happened next? Ken has no recollection. According to an eyewitness, a car traveling about 50 mph veered into the breakdown lane, striking Ken from behind. “I was thrown up onto the car’s windshield and into the air before smashing onto the pavement,” said Ken. “My bike landed across the guardrail in the woods and was destroyed. My helmet was broken in half.”

He was immediately flown via critical care air transport to a local trauma center, where he remained in a coma. “I had no realization of the severity of my injuries, or that I was given a 25 percent chance of surviving the first night, until I woke up five weeks later,” recounted Ken.

Ken had suffered grave injuries – a fractured skull and traumatic brain injury, a severe pelvic fracture, multiple cracked vertebrae and broken ribs, massive internal bleeding, a renal artery aneurysm and a collapsed lung. While he lay in a coma, his wife Deborah informed family and friends around the country about Ken’s condition. One of those people was a close friend, an orthopaedic surgeon in California, who coincidentally was arriving in Boston the next day. When she landed, she came directly to the hospital.

After viewing the X-rays and realizing the severity of Ken's pelvic injuries, she offered to discuss the situation with Paul Tornetta, MD, FACS, FAAOS, director of Orthopaedic Trauma at Boston Medical Center and professor and vice chairman in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Boston University School of Medicine.

Dr. Tornetta agreed that Ken’s injuries warranted moving him to BMC for treatment. His sacrum – a large, triangular bone at the base of the spine between the two hip bones – was fractured and a portion of the sacroiliac joint – which connects the sacrum with the pelvis – was dislocated.

“This injury presented a real challenge in Mr. McDonnell getting back to his pre-injury function as a triathlete,” recounted Dr. Tornetta. “Unfortunately, most patients will not be able to regain that heightened level of activity, and without essentially perfect alignment, that chance is greatly diminished.”

Dr. Tornetta performed an intricate surgery to repair Ken’s pelvis, precisely aligning the bones through the placement of screws in the back part of his pelvis. “With special X-ray guidance, we were able to place screws perpendicular to the displacement, and these screws were used to tighten the fractured part back to its normal position,” explained Dr. Tornetta.

Ken spent three weeks at Boston Medical Center recovering from his surgery. “Deborah and I could not have been better served at BMC,” he said of his experience.

Deborah added, “Dr. Tornetta brought not only technical excellence to Ken’s treatment, but he also remained accessible virtually night and day to answer my questions and concerns. He maintained this level of extraordinary care through Ken’s treatment and rehabilitation.”

Amazingly, Ken was able to return to triathlon training only six months after his injury, and he completed his first post-injury race less than a year after his surgery. Since then, Ken has since competed in seven races, culminating this past summer with his completion of Escape from Alcatraz, one of the country’s most grueling triathlons.

Beyond his own physical prowess and mental grit, Ken credits much of his remarkable recovery to the skill of Dr. Tornetta. “I consider him to be a miracle worker, a sentiment reinforced by my primary care physician and therapists, and by friends in the field of medicine.”


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