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Hope for Zach: Local teen recovers from spinal-cord injury

Rick Hansen, whose Man in Motion World Tour from 1985 to ’87 raised $26 million for spinal-cord research, visits with Zach Den Uyl on Wednesday afternoon at Vancouver General Hospital. Hansen’s autobiography has been providing inspiration to Zach during his recovery from a swimming pool accident.  - Submitted photo
Rick Hansen, whose Man in Motion World Tour from 1985 to ’87 raised $26 million for spinal-cord research, visits with Zach Den Uyl on Wednesday afternoon at Vancouver General Hospital. Hansen’s autobiography has been providing inspiration to Zach during his recovery from a swimming pool accident.
— image credit: Submitted photo

Zach Den Uyl, 16, and three buddies were hanging out at a friend’s house on the evening of July 11 in Abbotsford when the group decided to go for a swim in the above-ground pool on the property.

They raced outside, and Zach, determined to be the first one in the water, quickly climbed the ladder and dove head-first into the pool, not more than about four feet deep.

His friends could hear the thud of his head as it hit the bottom of the pool with the full weight of his body.

Zach floated face-down to the surface, and he was not moving.

His friends immediately jumped into the water and turned him over.

Zach was still conscious and thanked them for saving him. He had tried to turn himself over, but he couldn’t move his limbs.

His friends pulled him to the side of the pool and out of the water, while one ran into the home to get help.

Now, five weeks later, Zach remains in hospital, facing an uncertain future, but one with hope and strong support from family and friends.

A trust fund has been set up to help with his potential future needs, whatever those may be.

The accident shattered the front side of Zach’s C6 vertebra, the sixth of seven cervical vertebrae extending from the skull and down the spine.

He has been in Vancouver General Hospital ever since and had surgery in which a metal plate connected his C5 and C7 vertebrae and a “cage” packed with bone graft was inserted in between.

The idea is that, as the bone grows, it forms a solid bond around the cage, holding the vertebrae together.

This takes time and the outcome is uncertain from patient to patient.

Zach’s dad, Peter Den Uyl (in photo at left) of Abbotsford, said the surgeon told the family that Zach’s injury was “very serious” and the bruising he has on his spinal cord could take anywhere from 18 months to four or five years to heal.

Zach, who turns 17 on Sept. 2, could gain more and more movement over time and eventually walk again, or he could be a quadriplegic – paralyzed in all four limbs – and need care for the rest of his life, the family was told.

“We’re in a ‘hurry up and wait’ situation,” Peter said.

Since the accident, Zach has progressed to being able to sit up in a wheelchair. He has some mobility in his upper arms and rotation in his wrists, but is otherwise unable to move.

He has a tracheotomy tube in place to help with his breathing, which prohibited him from speaking, but that was replaced on Wednesday to one without a cuff, allowing him to speak again for the first time since the accident.

Until then, he was communicating by moving his lips, which his mom, Heidi Derrick of Mission (in photo below with Zach and his brother Adrian), had become adept at interpreting.

Heidi, who is not currently working, spends every day with Zach, and Peter, a full-time graphic designer and installer at CM Signs in Abbotsford, visits every second day. Zach also has two younger brothers, ages 14 and six.

Heidi and Peter, who are divorced, work hard to stay positive, especially when Zach has bad days and dwells on the accident.

“We tell him, ‘We’re here. You’re alive, which is already a huge deal. We’re not having to figure out our lives without you,’” Peter said.

“He’s been unbelievably strong … I don’t know if I’d be able to function how he’s been functioning.”

Heidi said, for the most part, Zach is remaining positive and upbeat. He has drawn strength and inspiration from Rick Hansen, whose book “Man in Motion,” she has been reading to him in hospital.

Further buoying Zach’s spirits was a hospital visit from Hansen on Wednesday afternoon.

“It was such a blessing to have Zach be able to ask him questions and to hear stories about some of Rick’s friends who have the same sort of injury, and how they’ve overcome so many obstacles,” Peter said.

Heidi and Peter said they hope that Zach’s story serves as a reminder to others to be careful in their recreational pursuits and the unexpected results they can have. Before his accident, Zach enjoyed activities such as skateboarding, BMX riding and snowboarding.

“We both thought he would have an injury from one of those (activities), not from going swimming in a friend’s backyard,” Heidi said.

A Facebook page, “Hope for Zach Den Uyl,” posts regular updates about Zach’s progress. Donations for the trust fund can be made at the BMO branch on Mt. Lehman Road, using the transit number 07490 and account number 3984-395.

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