When 31-year-old Gael Yonnet's head hit the snow after a 20-foot jump last weekend, he knew his snowboard helmet would not be enough to break his fall.
With four years of medical school under his belt, Yonnet knew the pain in his stomach and the numbness bellow his belly button meant one thing he was paralyzed.
"It's a feeling you can't explain. I felt like I was touching somebody else when I touched my leg. I knew it was over," said Yonnet, a University of Utah medical student whose crash landing in the USA snowboarding tournament Saturday left him paralyzed from the waist down.
The French native's accident thrust him into a role reversal, landing him in a bed in the neurology unit at the University of Utah where only days before he had been doing rounds while studying to become a neurologist.
"In the last three days I understood a lot about pain and how patients should be treated," Yonnet said Wednesday.
Simple procedures like rolling over to allow nurses to slip back supports behind him are now monumental tasks that he couldn't appreciate as a medical student, Yonnet said.
Yonnet's dream of becoming a doctor brought him to Salt Lake City from his hometown of Bordeaux, France, 10 years ago. Yonnet now lives with the parents of an LDS missionary who taught him about The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After joining the church, Yonnet came to Utah to study and hone his snowboarding skills in the little spare time he has between passing his board exams and applying for residency.
Yonnet doesn't plan on giving up either of those dreams anytime soon.
Although Yonnet's crash severed his spinal cord, he was already talking Wednesday about entering the paralympics as soon as he's able to learn monoskiing in place of his snowboard.
"I need new motivation in life. I'll just dedicate my life to a new thing," he said. "I never made it to the real Olympics, so maybe this is my only way to get to it."
As for becoming a doctor, Yonnet said he's still on track, although it might take him a little longer to get there. He now hopes to use his medical experience to find ways to stimulate leg muscles with electronic shocks or even invent a contraption to actually lift his legs with strings.
Dr. David Renner, a mentor to Yonnet and the director of the adult neurology residency program, said school officials are working to "ensure he graduates."
"I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes interested in a field like rehabilitation medicine. It will take on a new personal meaning for him," Renner said. "He'll surprise himself and do amazing things with this strange hurdle he's been asked to overcome."
Recovery won't be quick, however, and Yonnet said each day has been a grapple between despair and hope. The day after his crash, Renner said he opened his eyes and immediately wanted to be dead.
"Obviously, there is a lot of things in my life like going to the bathroom that I can't do on my own. If that's how I'm going to live, then maybe I want to die," Yonnet said.
An outpouring of support from fellow medical students and doctors gave him a reason to push aside his feelings of doom, Yonnet said.
Other fourth-year medical students immediately set up a donation fund for Yonnet at Zion's bank, as well as a grooming committee to shave and bathe their peer.
The students will also be raising money for Yonnet on "match day" March 16, the day when most fourth-year medical students are partnered up with medical schools for residency training.
"I'm hoping all the positive energy that's going his way will help him realize that people want him to get better," said medical student Sergio Gonzalez, who noted most students know Yonnet as the funny French guy who blazes around campus on a European scooter.
Already, the students have been able to collect more than $3,000.
Fred Langeland, the father of the missionary who met Yonnet in France, said those bills have racked up quickly in just four days, already surpassing Yonnet's insurance maximum by $20,000. On top of that, Yonnet has upwards of $200,000 in student loans.
"He's a very capable young man with a lot of potential; this has not diminished that," said Langeland, who has been a host to Yonnet for the past eight years.
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