Beach tennis player inspires new adaptive sports programs at Lynn Rehabilitation Center following severe spinal cord injury

By: Krysten Brenlla

Chauncey Koolman, 25, has been playing beach tennis for as long as he can remember. As a young athlete, he aspired to pursue a career in professional sports.

However, on October 2, 2023, Koolman’s life took a drastic turn when he was involved in a near-fatal car accident.

“I remember I was driving on the expressway heading home, and it started raining hard,” he said. “I had my car on cruise control, and I had dropped something. Instinctively, I bent down to pick it up, and when I got back up, I was already hitting the side railing. I had not even a second to jerk out of it.”

Koolman’s car was totaled after crashing against the side railing. He said two other drivers stopped to help pull him out of the car. By that time, emergency medical services arrived, and rushed him to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson South with a cervical spinal cord injury.

The spinal cord injury resulted in a partial loss of sensation from the neck down. Ultimately, Koolman was paralyzed in his lower extremities.

“I was very optimistic, despite my circumstances,” he said. “I wasn’t in any pain; I was conscious throughout the whole encounter, and I trusted the team at Jackson.”

After an emergency surgery at Jackson South, Koolman spent one week in the neurosurgical intensive care unit. Once he was discharged from Jackson South, he was transferred to Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center for The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at UHealth/Jackson Memorial.

When Koolman first arrived at Lynn Rehabilitation Center, he could not raise his arms over his head or move his hands. He had no mobility in his triceps muscles, was experiencing weakness in his bicep muscles, and was unable to move his fingers.

“The most challenging part is that you have to be dependent on someone for everything – going to the bathroom, eating, bathing,” he said. “But I learned everything I needed to know at Lynn Rehabilitation Center. The mental challenge is being patient with yourself.”

After a month of rehabilitation therapy, Koolman slowly improved. With physical therapy, he was able to transfer to a wheelchair by himself, gained bicep and triceps muscle mobility, and improved his upper body strength.

Additionally, with occupational therapy, he learned how to dress, bathe, and manage his bladder and bowel movements without additional help.

“He was always a very hard worker, more so than the average person, as he is an athlete,” said Nadina Barreto, an outpatient occupational therapist at Lynn Rehabilitation Center. “Our goals with him centered on having him become as independent as possible – and he was always very motivated.”

In addition to gaining mobility in his upper extremities and hands, Koolman learned to roll over in bed, lift up and dip by himself in his wheelchair, and support himself for a long time without any support.

“When we first saw him, Chauncey required maximum assistance for all aspects of daily living,” Barreto said. “Now, he can perform his self-care activities on his own, even seated in his wheelchair, with minimal – if any – assistance at all. With time and practice, we’re sure he can be completely independent using adaptive equipment and compensatory strategies, as needed.”

With the help of recreational therapy, Koolman participates in several adaptive sports, like boxing and pickle ball, using an adapted handle made by his occupational therapy team. Because of his love for beach tennis, he inspired the recreational therapy team at Lynn Rehabilitation Center to open a new pickle ball adaptive sports program for patients.

“Our role is to figure out what type of leisure interests our patients have, how involved they were in their community prior to their injury, and what their goals are so we can help them integrate back into the community,” said Ashley Herrera, a recreational therapist at Lynn Rehabilitation Center. “For Chauncey, we used pickle ball activities to replicate some of the exercises that he was doing as a beach tennis player before his injury, while also using the sport to improve on his functional goals, like balance.”

Now, after six months of rehabilitation, Koolman is working with his therapy team on improving his transferring skills, especially from his wheelchair to a car, and dressing his lower body in his chair. He’s also working on his typing, writing, and driving skills, with a goal of going back to school and work in the future.

He credits the team at Lynn Rehabilitation Center for pushing him to be his best self, and for opening doors to new rehabilitation possibilities tailored to his passions.

“There’s nothing I could say to the teams here other than thank you,” Koolman said. “It’s a hard situation, so to get through it and be pushed the way they push you – I’m blessed to have them.”