Partners in rehabilitation

Couple who lost their left legs in vehicle accident are Partners through thick and thin

Jim and Ellen Atwood
February 2014

(Toronto) Ellen and Jim Atwood are now partners in ways they never would have imagined less than a year ago.

The Orangeville couple have been married for over 40 years, have brought up three boys together and could often be seen riding tandem on their Harley Davidson Ultra Classic. But it was a traumatic accident in May on a motorcycle trip in California that made them partners in rehabilitation.

The Atwoods were on the last day of their motorcycle tour with another couple, just minutes away from finding a hotel for the night in Santa Barbara, when their lives changed forever.

A drunk driver coming from the opposite direction crossed the median in the road with his SUV, striking the Atwoods on their motorcycle.

The collision threw them from the motorcycle, mangled both their lower left legs and critically damaged Ellen’s left arm.

Two passers-by played a huge role in saving the Atwoods’ lives. A surgical technician, and an army combat veteran, both with previous trauma training, stopped to help, quickly applying tourniquets and tending to them until paramedics arrived.

It became obvious at nearby Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital that both their left legs above the knee would have to be amputated, but doctors were unsure about Ellen’s left arm.

“I told them I could feel sand and grit under my nails so the doctors said, ‘maybe we can save her arm,’ ” Ellen says. “When I woke, my leg was gone but my arm was there, so I was thankful.”

That spirit and drive has carried them through a total of six surgeries between them since the accident and is propelling them through their rehab at West Park. Although at different stages in their recovery due to Ellen’s arm injury, both are on a steady course to reclaiming their lives.

The Atwoods family of children and grandchildren have helped immensely in their recovery. “We became the kids and they became the adults during this whole ordeal,” Ellen says.

And their “new little family at West Park” as Jim describes them have been “phenomenal.”

Working with the physiotherapists, occupational therapists and prosthetists among others at West Park is moving their recovery along.

“With a lovely sense of humor and a positive attitude they are always encouraging one another,” says their physiotherapist Janet Campbell. “It’s great to see their progress and the inspiration they give to those around them.”

The Atwoods’ short-term goals are to build an accessible house and to return to work. Both are making important steps towards those goals and reclaiming their lives.

Christmas presented a huge milestone for Ellen. Someone who loves to cook, she was thrilled to be able to help prepare meals for the family over the holidays. “Putting that turkey in the oven was a very big deal for me,” Ellen says.”

As the Atwoods work hard in the rehabilitation gym and pool at West Park four days a week, giving each other words of encouragement and affirmation, it’s obvious they will reach their goals.“Everybody here has a goal to help us,” Jim says. “They made me believe in myself, that I will recover.”

If you would like to watch City News Toronto's piece by Avery Haines on the Atwoods, go here