Back to life from the edge of death: Personal trainer survives broken neck to train again

Oviedo YMCA trainer makes miraculous recovery after horrendous car crash

Sean Davis has returned to his job as a personal trainer at the YMCA after a devastating car crash. (Courtesy)

OVIEDO, Fla. – Sean Davis reached for the steering wheel when his buddy driving suddenly slumped over.

That decision saved the lives of both Davis and his friend but it also changed them forever and put Davis on a searingly painful, bitterly tearful two-year-long road to recovery that would test his perseverance, stress his patience and question his purpose in life.

Davis, a former physical therapist and current Oviedo YMCA personal trainer, was in the shape of his life. 

He and his friend Brad had planned an action-packed week of mountain biking and hiking in the Rocky Mountains of Breckenridge, Colorado.

They landed in Denver on Sept. 17, 2018 and rented an SUV for the two-hour drive to Breckenridge. They never made it.

“Brad suddenly looked at me and said, ‘I’m  going to pass out,’” Davis recalled. “Without saying another word, his head fell to his chest and his color turned ashen. At first I thought he was kidding.”

At 60 mph, the SUV veered into oncoming traffic with Brad’s foot laying limp on the gas pedal.

“The middle console on the SUV was too wide for me to do anything to stop the car,” Davis said. “Having no other choice, I unstrapped my seat belt, leaned over and grabbed the steering wheel, turning it sharply to the left to avoid hitting oncoming traffic. Our car missed other cars but went airborne catapulting into trees, taking out 17 in all, according to the police report.”

The SUV rolled down an embankment, tossing Davis without a seatbelt and slamming his body into the ceiling, seats and floor over and over. Brad was still seat-belted into the driver’s seat.

The SUV came to a rest upside-down on a highway access road.

“Never losing consciousness, I remember it feeling like being caught in a dryer,” Davis said. “When we came to a stop I heard gas pouring out of the car. Brad was still strapped upside down with his seat belt still on. He was still unconscious and his color was white. I had no idea of his condition; I just knew I had to get out of that car as quickly as possible.”

Davis dragged himself out of the SUV and over to the side of the road.

He spotted their suitcases thrown from the car. Then he spotted his foot.

“I could see the bone protruding and there was blood, but I was unaware just how bad the injury was or that I had also broken my neck, broken my left ankle and suffered multiple cuts and contusions from crawling through metal and glass,” Davis said. “I did a quick assessment and was thankful that I was alert and that I could still feel my legs.”

The SUV Sean Davis and his friend were in was destroyed after they crashed. (Courtesy)

Other drivers immediately stopped to help and within minutes ambulances began to arrive. Davis and Brad were rushed to Summit Hospital in Frisco, Colorado.

Brad regained consciousness shortly after the accident and suffered only broken ribs, facial contusions and as he would find out later: a previously undiagnosed heart condition.

Davis was airlifted an hour away to St. Anthony Hospital, a level one trauma center in Lakewood, Colorado, for emergency surgery in the early morning hours in order to save his right foot.

His parents from Orlando arrived almost as quickly and never left his side.

“My parents would stay with me until I was discharged home 10 days later,” Davis said. 

He underwent a second surgery the following morning to attach an external fixator - a stabilizing device - to his nearly-amputated right foot. Surgeons repaired his left fractured ankle with screws and attached a neck collar to stabilize Davis’ C5 neck fracture.

“My family was told by the surgeon that I had a high risk of one: Developing an infection since I dragged myself through the dirt. Two: That I would most likely develop necrosis in that foot since the blood supply had been cut off. Three: That I would develop arthritis in that ankle over time and four: There was a possibility that I would eventually lose my foot,” Davis said. 

Brad would be discharged from Summit Hospital a few days later. 

“On his way to the Denver airport, Brad stopped by to see me,” Davis said. “It was not the vacation we had planned. Both of us would be changed forever. Brad would later require a pacemaker for his heart condition and I would undergo five more surgeries that would take a year and a half to recover from.”

Ten days later, Davis was discharged from St. Anthony and flown home with his parents.

“My mother, a nurse, had to give me shots in my stomach to prevent blood clots during the plane ride,” Davis said. “I would stay with my parents for the rest of 2018 and most of 2019.”

Being home was excruciating. 

Davis developed the exact infection of which doctors had warned. A strong dose of antibiotics saved his foot for a second time.

But the complications didn't end there.

“For the first 12 weeks I would wear the neck collar 24/7, which felt like I was being strangled,” Davis said. “I was in constant pain, and did not sleep except for an hour or two here and there. I experienced anxiety and hives, which caused me to itch uncontrollably. I shivered constantly. No amount of medicine could bring me relief. I would be in and out of wheelchairs, crutches and walkers for the next year.”

Davis wondered if he’d ever walk normally again. He wondered if he would ever recover fully. He wondered if the pain would ever end. And he wondered if he would ever return to his passion: physical fitness.

That’s what ultimately pushed Davis to get back on his feet.

“I would experience moments of grief and anger but soon realized how lucky I was to be alive,” Davis said. “I wanted to take this and turn it into something positive and that maybe one day I would be able to use my personal training to help someone that was struggling with an injury.”

Davis found an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Orlando Health Hospital to continue his recovery. He attended physical therapy three times per week and underwent a third surgery to remove the fixator device that had been installed in Denver.

“The greatest day of all, however, was learning that my broken neck had healed and after three months I could finally remove the metal neck collar,” Davis said. “I welcomed 2019 with enthusiasm. I returned back to my own house, began to drive and went back to work at the Oveido YMCA. I felt like the worst was finally over.”

But it wasn't. He almost lost his foot for a third time.

“Unfortunately I continued to experience severe pain in my right foot and ankle, probably more than I should have at this stage of healing,” Davis said. “An X-ray revealed that I had developed avascular necrosis in the right foot as well as arthritis in the ankle, just as we had been warned about in Denver. It was not healing, the bone was dead and I would have to undergo yet another surgery where my talus bone would be removed and my ankle permanently fused. My surgeon said I would walk but never run again. I thought of all of the obstacle races I had participated in and realized I would probably never do another.”

That day was his lowest point.

“I had hoped to be back to work full-time by then,” Davis said. “I questioned if my career as a personal trainer was now over.”

But Davis’ parents, still by his side, reminded him how far he had come in one year from dragging himself from an upside-down SUV with a broken neck to being mostly back on his feet.

“My parents reminded me that even if I couldn’t walk or run, I could still train people,” Davis said. “I still had the knowledge and credentials and nothing could take that away.”

On June 24, 2019, Davis underwent the ankle fusion surgery, his fourth surgery, freezing his ability to bend his ankle permanently and confining him to a walker.

The fusion surgery had made his right leg about an inch shorter than his left left. This disparity affected his knees, hips and back and caused chronic pain. 

Davis had two options: wear a shoe lift or undergo yet another surgery to lengthen his leg.

He chose the surgery.

On Oct. 17, 2019, more than one year after his car crash, Davis endured a fifth surgery.

Doctors broke his tibia and fibula bones and attached another external fixator to the bones with rods and screws. 

After he was released from the hospital with the fixator installed, it was Davis’ job to lengthen his leg himself. For two weeks, four times per day, he had to stretch the fixator connected to his bone by turning a key, causing himself mind-numbing pain.

Sean details the bone-lengthening process in his YouTube video, embedded below. 

“This pain was worse than all of the others and there weren’t enough pain pills in the world to relieve it,” Davis said. “Turning the fixator would stretch my broken bones even further apart until both legs were even. The space between the bones would slowly fill in with new bone. But this took time and it is still healing.”

Almost three months later, doctors were satisfied Davis’ bone had lengthened enough to match his other leg and removed the fixator.

But he would not be able to place any weight on his leg for another eight weeks. He celebrated his second Christmas in a row recovering at his parents' house.

“I promised myself that I would be home for 2020,” Davis said. “On New Year’s Eve, I returned back to my house to bring in a new year, more hopeful that this year would be the end of my journey.”

Like for most people, 2020 hasn’t gone as Davis hoped.

The Oviedo YMCA closed for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Davis, giving him even more time to recover and rehabilitate his foot.

By the time the Y reopened in May, Davis was ready - enough - to go back to work.

He could hobble around the gym floor with a cane.

Today, he is cycling once again.

And he has accomplished his goal of returning to help others overcome their physical fitness struggles and improve their health through exercise and personal training.

“I still have a ways to go but I feel very positive about my future and look forward every day to going to work at the Oviedo YMCA,” Davis said.

Davis used the downtime during his 16-month recovery to learn. He earned several higher specializations related to his National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certification and began to study for his bachelor’s degree in health acience. 

And Davis still checks in with Brad, who now lives in Nashville.

“We wonder how things would have been different had we not had the accident,” Davis said. “For one thing, he never would have discovered his heart issue at age 41, which is now being successfully treated.”

Davis admits his life has changed forever. But so has his outlook. And that new outlook guides him and centers him every day of his life that he almost lost on Sept. 17, 2018.

“I would not have gone through all of the physical and emotional pain but also realized just how resilient I am and how much friends and family mean to me,” Davis said. “And I never lost that foot. So life is good!”

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.