by Jeremy Benoit

John Ulsh

“Your current circumstance does not determine how far you will go, only where you begin.”  - John Ulsh

On December 1, 2007 John Ulsh returned around 7:30 AM from a ten mile run.   He grabbed a quick shower, dressed, and jumped in the car with his the rest of his family to head to his eight year old daughter Katie’s swim meet about an hour away.   He and his wife Tonia promised their four year-old son James that if he was well-behaved during the meet, they would go and cut down a Christmas tree afterwards.

Katie had a great meet, the first of the indoor season, taking firsts in all three of her events.  James did his best to behave while he sat in the hot pool area watching his sister swim.  It was only a little after noon and they were already on their way home to get a tree.

Route 16 in Mercersburg, PA is two-lane, 55 MPH, undivided highway.  The Ulsh’s were driving home, talking about going skiing the next day, when a car traveling the other direction suddenly cross over the center line and hit them head-on.  There was no warning and neither driver hit their breaks.  The police estimated the combined impact speed to be 125 MPH.  The driver of the other car was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Ulsh Car

Everyone in the Ulsh family was seriously injured, but they all survived.  John took the brunt of the crash and was severely injured.  He was airlifted to Penn State Hershey Medical Center.  Ulsh arrived with less than a 3% chance of survival.  His spleen and diaphragm had ruptured.  His left lung had collapsed.  His pelvis was shattered as well as four vertebrae in his back.  He had a dozen broken ribs and a fractured foot.    Doctors cut him open from sternum to pelvis in order try to find and stop the bleeding.  He took a remarkable 50 units of blood over the first 48 hours.

Ulsh remained in an induced coma over the next 15 days while doctors preformed ten major surgeries to put this modern day Humpty-Dumpty back together again…  When John awoke from his coma, he was paralyzed below his waist and was in excruciating pain.  He had no abdominal muscles.  Three days before Christmas, he was moved to a nursing home in his hometown of Carlisle, PA where he would spend the next 10 weeks in bed “non-weight-bearing”, while his broken back and shattered pelvis, now held together with titanium, healed.

Ulsh’s time in the nursing home was long and difficult, both physically and mentally.  He spent most of his day in unbearable pain and unable to sleep.  Mentally, fear was taking its toll on him.  Fear that he would never walk again.  Fear that his life would never be the same.   Ten weeks later, he left the nursing home 30 lbs. lighter, wearing a back brace that made him look like a Storm Trooper from Star Wars and sitting in a wheel chair.  His next stop was in-patient rehab.

John arrived at Pinnacle Rehab in Harrisburg, PA with one goal in mind, to go home to his own house so that he could be with his wife and kids, and sleep in his own bed.  Two weeks later, his wife Tonia pushed his wheel chair up the custom ramp that friends had built only days before so he could get into his house.   Fourteen weeks after the accident John was finally back in his own home.  The next day Tonia drove him to out patient rehab.  He would continue going every weekday for the next year.

Nine months after the accident John went back to Penn State Hershey Medical Center to have his abdominal muscles reattached.  During pre-op, doctors found that he had developed a hole in his heart from the accident.  A very rare occurrence as most people would have died from another complication of the trauma before damaged heart tissue would have had time to die.  Eventually, doctors concluded that it would still be safe to have the abdominal surgery.  A month later Ulsh had an 8 hour surgery to re-attach his abs.  The doctors were only able to attached two-thirds of the muscles and ended up sewing in Gore Tex mesh to hold the rest of this abdominal cavity closed.  John spent 15 days in the hospital recovering from the operation.   Two weeks after returning home, doctors found ten bloods clots in Ulsh’s left leg from the most recent surgery.  The clots caused extensive damage to the veins in his leg.

Almost two years after the accident John was walking with cane.  He had full use of his right leg, but had severe nerve damage in his left leg from the accident and extensive swelling from the blot clot damage.  He dealt with chronic pain by taking large amounts of morphine.  Ulsh was coming to terms with his “new me” and was content to spend most of his day sitting in a chair or laying in his bed.    All that changed one day when his now ten-year-old daughter called him out.

Ulsh sat in his home office watching out the window as his daughter Katie practiced soccer.  A few minutes later Katie came into his office crying.  “I miss my old daddy, the one who would come out side and train with me,” she told him.  Ulsh’s heart broke.  He had always been an athlete.  He had been training his children to be athletes as well.  Now he was robbing his kids of that experience.

“I think it is time that daddy started training again,” he told his daughter.  The next day John went to his local YMCA.    “My first day at the YMCA I couldn’t even complete one circuit of the weight machines set at the lowest setting.  After 30 minutes I left, with no intention of ever returning.  The next morning I woke up and the first think I thought was ‘my shoulders hurt!’” Ulsh said.  It was the first time in over two years that the first thought he had upon waking wasn’t about his chronic pain and the accident.  He was hooked.  “I needed to get back to the gym and re-create the pain.  This was pain that I could understand, that I could control.”   John began the showing up at the gym almost every day “trying to make me hurt.”  Six months later he was walking without a cane.  A year after starting at the gym, Ulsh was in better shape than most healthy men.  In March of 2011 Men’s Fitness Magazine wrote a feature article about his remarkable progress.  Ulsh starting speaking to groups about his story and started writing a blog about his recovery and his motivation titled

Ulsh continued to work hard a repairing his broken body, but the ability to run was still evading him.  The lack of blood circulation from the clot damage made getting oxygen to the muscles in his left leg almost impossible when running for more than 200 yards.  On top of the skin on his leg was breaking down from the swelling causing ulcers to form.  There was even discussion as to whether he would need a partial leg amputation.  In October of 2011 John traveled to the University of North Carolina Medical Center to surgery on the femoral vein on his left leg.  4” of stent were put into the section of the vein that travels through his pelvis.  80% of the vein was blocked from scarring.   A month after the surgery John was jogging a mile.  He was worked up to 4 miles since.  “I can’t run very fair and certainly don’t run very fast, but I am running.  Doctors told me walking would be a challenge.  Now I am running again”, said Ulsh.  “It as been difficult to come to terms with the realization that I will never be able to run like I could before the accident.  I now average about a 12-minute mile pace.  I use to run under 7 minute mile pace for 20+ miles.  I need to keep reminding myself that I am lucky just to run. Plus, I stronger then I have ever been in my life,” he added with a smile.

On July 14th John will test himself once again when he attempts to become a Spartan.  “No one could have ever even imagined that I could do anything like the Spartan Race when I was laying in that nursing home bed paralyzed and in incredible pain.  Finishing the race will mean everything to me.”

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2 Responses

  1. avatar

    Incredible. An inspiration to us all, John.

  2. avatar


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