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Sunday, May 20 News

Westport woman paralyzed during nor’easter prepares for new life

WESTPORT — Two months after a fallen tree paralyzed Victoria Gouletas outside her home on Sturges Highway, she has returned home with positivity and determination to make the best of her newfound limitations.

“I need to learn a new skill set for how my life looks now, and therapy is how I get strong enough and acquire the skills to be able to get there. That has been my top priority for the past seven weeks since the accident happened,” Gouletas said after completing a physical therapy session at her home on May 3.

After her stay in the Intensive Care Unit at Norwalk Hospital, Gouletas went straight to the spinal cord therapy wing of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to get started with physical therapy. She said she wanted to build strength to return home to a life of relative independence with her husband and three kids.

Physical therapists, group sessions and visits from prior spinal cord injury patients at Mount Sinai gave Gouletas hope for the future, but she said she sources most of her strength from positive thinking.

“I almost died that night and I had a choice to make. I had a doctor tell me I would likely never walk again and he had to do emergency surgery to stabilize my spine so it wouldn’t get worse. I made a choice to focus on the fact I was still alive and try to be positive about the things I still had as opposed to the things I lost that day,” Gouletas said. “I focus on the fact I’ll get to see my kids go to college, I’ll get to be here to watch them grow up and be involved in their lives, and I get to see my husband every day. I try to focus on that. You can focus on the negative but it’s not going to change what happened.”

Nonetheless, Gouletas said the transition to life with her injury has been difficult, especially for her kids — Ana, 10; Tafe, 9; and Zoe, 2 — who were inside the family’s home the night of the storm when Gouletas and her husband, Troy Burk, walked outside to inspect a fallen tree. Another tree fell suddenly on Gouletas, sparing Burk completely.

“This is a lot of change. We try to put the best spin on it, but it’s still hard,” Gouletas said, noting she and Burke put their two-story house for sale because they need to move to a flat, ranch-style home to accommodate her needs. Currently, Gouletas sleeps in a temporary hospital bed in her living room because she cannot get upstairs to her old bedroom, or those of her children.

Next week, she will return to the hospital to get a pump inserted in her spinal cord to help mitigate the painful spasms she endures each day as a result of the injury.

The financial burden of Gouletas’ injuries is also a challenge. In addition to the expenses involved in purchasing and retrofitting a new home, Gouletas said she needs to replace her temporary wheelchair with a permanent chair, which will cost about $14,000. She said she doesn’t know how much of the cost will be covered by insurance.

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Gouletas said she also needs a new bed ($4,000), exercise equipment ($4,000-$7,000), and potentially an exoskeleton ($50,000-$75,000). In the future, Gouletas hopes to participate in programs to heal her spinal cord, but she said insurance considers these programs exploratory and, therefore, won’t pay for them.

While Gouletas hopes more people will donate to her Gofundme page, she said the over $200,000 the page has already raised since her injury allowed her to buy a car with a wheelchair ramp and enabled her husband to take time off from work.

“My husband was kind enough to take almost two months off of work to help me, and although that’s been amazing, we wouldn’t be able to do that without the support of the Gofundme page. It’s made a huge difference in me trying to be as healthy as I can and having the support that I need,” Gouletas said.

The Westport community has rallied around the family, Gouletas said. Every day since the accident, community members have made meals for her family, and her kids’ friends often pick them up for playdates. The community is the reason Gouletas said her family is hoping to stay in town, despite the need to relocate to a new home.

“People I do and don’t know have reached out to me with cards and flowers and support,” Gouletas said. “It helps me to be positive because I’m able to see just how kind and generous and loving everyone has been.”

It is hard to set goals and plan for the future this early in the recovery process, Gouletas said, but one day she hopes to engage in adaptive sports and return to her volunteer position on the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

“I think in life you lead by example. You can have great words, but I think how you act is also important, maybe more important,” Gouletas said. “I have kids. I want them to see me as my best self, and so that’s what I’m trying to be. Certainly I’m compromised by my physical limitations, but I can still do the best I can with what I have.”

svaughan@hearst

mediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

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