Meet Dave Gillespie, PhD

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This molecular biology researcher shares how he re-entered the workforce after a spinal cord injury


On Christmas Eve, 2007, cancer researcher Dave Gillespie collided with a tree while snowboarding at the Brighton ski area in Utah.

His spine was stretched to the point of severe damage resulting in a T6 complete break – no sensation from the sternum down.

“I never lost consciousness,” recalls Gillespie. “I knew most of the surgeons who were likely to be operating on me, and I remember telling the emergency medical personnel exactly who to call and how to reach them.”

The team of surgeons fused his spine between T-9 and T-12, and he spent five and a half months in the hospital.

Going back to work meant creatively navigating the workspace

Dave says he always wanted to get back to work and his current research on brain cancer. “It was (and is) my passion.” He returned a year after his accident.

His employers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute kept his spot open. But how did they help to create an accessible workplace – a bustling, close-quarters laboratory filled with co-workers?

“Lab work is usually done standing up so there’s not really any room for the wheelchair underneath the tables,” says Dave. “Equipment like microscopes and centrifuges, which are expensive, are typically shared. There is little space to spare so supplies are stored on high shelves.”

The solution was not to alter the lab, but rather, to alter Dave’s wheelchair. He now uses an electric wheelchair that converts by to a standing position, locking Dave’s legs into place so he doesn’t fall over.

Impact to family life

Dave and his wife knew about wheelchairs long before the snowboarding accident. Their middle son, Russel, has a form of epilepsy that causes multiple seizures daily and has left him with mental capacity of a nine-month old.

“My SCI has been very stressful on our marriage. It’s a lot harder on my wife than me. She has a whole new set of responsibilities – house chores that I used to do and near solo 24/7 care of Russel, who is 14 years old now and 5’11”.

The couple discussed separating, but made the decision to stay together. They recently celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary.

“In general, I’d say that people are much more open and friendly with me now than before my injury,” Dave says. “But I think that might be because my personality is more socially inclined today, and I’m more talkative than I was before. I’m more of an advocate now.”

Dave’s advice for the newly injured

In the years since Dave’s accident, he has learned a few tricks for making the most out of life despite a spinal cord injury.

“I used the bus to get to work for awhile. I have a van now with hand controls and a ramp so I can roll in. Most vehicles can be modified to fit your needs. This was really important for me because having the car allows me to get out of the house and helps me to feel like a productive member of my family doing the grocery shopping or taking the boys to their activities.”

Focus on the things you can do.

“I’ve had my pity-party days, but ultimately decided that I just couldn’t sit around. I received a grant for a handcycle through the Challenged Athletes Foundation and participated in the St. George and Salt Lake City marathons. I am also active in the University of Utah TRAILS (Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Lifestyles) program.”

Be realistic.

“I had to face it straight on. I probably wasn’t getting a miracle. The longer I spent in denial, the longer it was going to take for me to start a new life with my SCI and get back to the people and things I loved. I think this is also good advice for people that want to lend support. Sometimes, they try to be positive and say, “I know you’re going to walk again.” But this can put a lot of pressure and unrealistic expectations on someone with a SCI.”

Don’t let the focus on your disability be a disability.

“I got a broad spectrum of reactions after I returned to work. Some people didn’t talk to me at all. Others wanted to do everything for me. I’m not shy about asking for help when I need it (makes more sense for someone to hand me something from a shelf above their head than for me to completely adjust the chair to sitting mode, then back to standing mode multiple times). But I’m also not shy about saying, “Thank you, I can do that myself.”

Do you have a story about how you re-entered the work world after a spinal cord injury? We would love to interview you for a future profile. Please contact Will2Walk today.

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