Med School Rotation Brings Student Back to Magee After Devastating Spinal Cord Injury

Michelle Konkoly says she feels like she can accomplish almost anything after having to learn to walk again.
Michelle Konkoly in front of Magee
Michelle Konkoly returned to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital this summer as a Sidney Kimmel Medical College student. She worked under the same doctor who cared for her nearly a decade ago.

When Michelle Konkoly walked into Magee Rehabilitation Hospital on July 6, wearing a white coat and scrubs, it was a surreal experience to say the least. It had been more than nine years since she arrived at Magee for the first time. Then, she was a patient with a devastating spinal cord injury; this time, a Sidney Kimmel Medical College student, working under the same doctor who cared for her years earlier.

“Being back here, now that so much time has passed, has given me so much perspective,” Konkoly says. “I can’t begin to imagine what my parents went through when I was a patient. They were so strong.”

During her freshman year at Georgetown University in 2011, Konkoly tragically fell out of her dorm room window while trying to open it one night. The impact of plummeting five stories left her with numerous broken bones, shattered the L2 vertebra in her back and damaged her spinal cord. She endured multiple surgeries, months of inpatient rehabilitation and many additional months of outpatient therapies.

Michelle as a patient at Magee
After a five-story fall from her Georgetown dorm room, Michelle Konkoly underwent multiple surgeries and months of inpatient rehabilitation and outpatient therapies.

“In college, I knew I wanted a career in the sciences,” Konkoly recalls. “While recovering from my spinal cord injury, I decided I wanted to practice medicine and help others the way so many helped me.”

She was no longer as competitive as she was before her injury, but she continued as a Division I swimmer at Georgetown and even served as team captain. Not wanting to give up her dream of being an elite swimmer, Konkoly deferred medical school for two years to train full-time for the Paralympics. She won four medals, including two golds, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.

“I feel like I can accomplish almost anything after having to learn to walk again,” says Konkoly, now a fourth-year medical student.

Michelle stands proudly in Team USA swimsuit
At the 2016 Paralympics, Michelle Konkoly won four medals. (Photo/Dolfin Swimwear of Elite Sportswear)

She’s currently doing clinical rotations, shadowing physicians and residents and gaining hands-on experience with patients. Konkoly elected for a physical medicine and rehabilitation rotation, which brought her back to Magee for several weeks this summer.

“It’s awesome to see someone come so far,” says Jacquelyn O’Hara, a Magee occupational therapist who cared Konkoly as an inpatient. “She always had such drive and motivation.”

Magee physical therapist Jeffrey Trexler treated Konkoly when she underwent intensive outpatient rehab. He shares her inspiring story with the physical therapy students he works with.

“Her life really has come full circle since she was a patient,” Trexler says. “We all feel so fortunate to have had a role in helping get to where she is today.”

While recovering from my spinal cord injury, I decided I wanted to practice medicine and help others the way so many helped me.
–Michelle Konkoly

“We’re all very proud of Michelle here,” agrees Dr. Chris Formal, who also cared for her in 2011. “She has inborn athleticism and determination that led her to make a remarkable recovery, then to the Paralympics and then to medical school. She’s thriving in this setting, too.”

During her Magee rotation, Konkoly worked up to 60 hours a week, meeting with patients and assisting with their care under the supervision of Dr. Formal and other resident physicians. As a former rehab patient, Konkoly says she understands the significance and magnitude of this patient-doctor relationship.

Michelle Konkoly will apply for residencies this fall. She hopes to enter pediatric rehabilitation medicine.

“My biggest takeaway is how much respect I have for the level of patient care at Magee,” she says. “When I consider my experiences at other institutions, Magee stands out in its commitment to doing what’s best for the patient in all hours of the day. It’s really impressive and creates a wonderful team atmosphere.”

Konkoly will apply for residencies in the fall, preparing for the next phase in her life and career. She hopes to practice pediatric rehabilitation medicine.

“I want patients to know there will be a day where you will go back to doing the things that you love,” Konkoly says. “You have a full life in front of you. You’ll find ways to be proud of yourself for things that you wouldn’t have thought of before.”

Michelle Konkoly participated in Jefferson’s first TEDx in 2019. Watch her talk, “Falling to New Heights,” here.

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