Security guard Jaroslaw Pieczonka feared he would never walk again after he broke his neck when he slipped in the shower of a cruise ship in rough seas off the coast of Fujairah.
But after six months of intensive treatment and complex operations in Sharjah, he walked out of hospital to begin the next stage of his recovery at home.
Mr Pieczonka, 57 a former special operations soldier and policeman from Poland, was working on the Red Sea cruise liner as a maritime security officer when the vessel rolled and pitched in rough weather on August 17, 2021.
“As the vessel was drifting, I decided to take a shower before conducting my watch,” he said.
“I went into the shower enclosure, which — unfortunately — had no anti-skid rubber mat. When the ship moved with a massive roll and pitch owing to the rough seas, I slipped.
“I grabbed hold of the safety bar in the shower, but it came off the wall and I fell on the floor on my back. I was unconscious and after 15 to 20 minutes I managed to get myself on to my bed on the bunk.”
Despite a numbness in his leg, Mr Pieczonka decided to continue his duties as watch manager.
But as the evening progressed, his condition began to deteriorate rapidly.
“Small accidents happen all the time on the ship. We simply brush it off and move on. However, I felt different after the fall,” he said.
“I could not do my watch, so I was sent to my room. I fell asleep, exhausted and in pain. When I woke up, I could not feel anything from my neck down.
“I felt like my chest was pulled up with a tight belt. I could not even go to the washroom. My team members tried to help me as much as they could. But there was not much they could do onboard.”
The ship’s doctor examined Mr Pieczonka but could not diagnose any specific injury or fracture without an on-board X-ray machine.
He decided to arrange an online assessment by a specialist doctor in the US, who immediately recommended the ship return to the nearest port to allow Mr Pieczonka to receive specialist care.
That port was Fujairah, so the vessel docked and the Pole was transferred to NMC Hospital in Sharjah where a team of doctors was waiting.
An X-ray and MRI scan revealed three fractures in his neck, and several spinal compressions — worsened by the seven-day delay before he could receive hospital care.
Mr Pieczonka was paralysed from the neck down, unable to move his hands and feet.
“The fall left him with three fractures on his cervical spine,” said Dr Bobby Jose, a clinical administrator and neurosurgeon at the hospital.
“I was concerned about the path to a complete recovery. Jaroslaw refused to give up and asked for more each time he would hit a physiotherapy benchmark to recovery.”
The patient’s determination to recover was so strong that hospital staff nicknamed him the "Polish Fighter".
To give Mr Pieczonka the best chance of recovery, surgeons performed a complex discectomy procedure to remove damaged disc material that was putting pressure on his spinal cord.
A corpectomy procedure followed, and surgeons removed further damaged vertebrae and intervertebral discs put pressure on his spinal nerves.
Metallic screws were then used to fuse and fix the damaged vertebrae in his neck.
“Jaroslaw tolerated the complex surgery well,” said Dr Jose.
Paralysed for months
“With impressive willpower, coupled with the effort put in by the advanced physiotherapy team, he made a remarkable recovery.
“He was able to sit all by himself by the end of the third month and was walking with minimal support at the end of the fourth month of his arrival at this hospital.”
As soon as he was fit to travel, the hospital contacted the Polish Embassy in the UAE to plan his final trip home on February 17.
“When I lay in bed paralysed, I knew how difficult my path to recovery would be,” said Mr Pieczonka, who is not married and has no family.
“However, every person I encountered made it look like I will recover completely and their smiles gave me hope. They chatted, joked and made my days brighter.
“I'm a born and practising Catholic. I relied on my faith to get through this ordeal. But when I saw all these people from different parts of the world [and] of a different faith working together to help me heal, I realised God is one but with different names.”
Physiotherapists used extensive mobilisation programmes to aid his recovery, including a new virtual reality-based initiative.
It allowed him to regain strength in his limbs over the months of recovery spent in hospital.
Despite losing his job as a result of his injuries, and a shortfall in his health insurance to cover his care, NMC continued to treat him.
Mr Pieczonka remained under the care of NMC Health until he was well enough to travel safely.
“Jaroslaw’s optimism, grit and determination to make a complete recovery was remarkable,” said NMC Health chief executive Michael Brenden Davis.
“His case will be used as an example of hope for chronic care and long-term care patients and providers.
“Jaroslaw serves as an inspiration to anyone suffering from spinal trauma.”