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Canavan family gift to support VUMC Trauma Team

May. 11, 2021, 2:57 PM

Thanks to the care he received at Vanderbilt, Owen Canavan eventually was able to return to the gym after recovering from a devastating car accident. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
Thanks to the care he received at Vanderbilt, Owen Canavan eventually was able to return to the gym after recovering from a devastating car accident. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

by Kristin Smart

Squats, pull-ups and running are all part of a regular CrossFit workout for Owen Canavan, who has been a member of the CrossFit Breakthrough gym in Nashville since 2012.

At 34, he is stronger than he has ever been. He even placed third in a recent competition at his gym, a feat that didn’t seem possible just a few years ago.

On April 7, 2017, a devastating car crash sent Canavan to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Trauma Intensive Care Unit, and he credits the medical team for saving his life.

“It’s basically a total miracle, every day,” said Canavan. “I am back in the gym six days a week, in the same place where I got hit.”

“The doctors and the nurses on the 10th floor in the trauma center at VUMC were, and will always remain, my heroes,” said Canavan, who along with his family, established an endowment in his name that will benefit the VUMC Trauma program.


Faith, support, and determination

On the day of the accident, Canavan remembers stretching out his shoulders in the back corner of his gym. Seconds later, a loud explosion rang out.

“Maybe I remember a little bit of seeing that vehicle just flying at me, but I can’t be sure of that memory,” he said.

Metro Police reports state an elderly driver accidentally crashed her car into the gym, pinning Canavan against the wall. He was rushed to VUMC in critical condition.

Owen Canavan is back to working out at the gym where he was injured four years ago. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
Owen Canavan is back to working out at the gym where he was injured four years ago. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

“When we receive trauma patients, especially ones who are injured so violently, there is a typical sense that even if they recover, they’ll never fully recover,” said Oscar Guillamondegui, MD, MPH, professor of Surgery, chief of the Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care for the Department of Surgery, who was part of Canavan’s care team along with Rick Miller, MD, former chief of the Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care, and Manny Sethi, MD, assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Canavan underwent eight surgeries during his first week at VUMC to repair a shattered femur, ruptured spleen and extensive injuries to his pelvis and lower abdomen.

“You know, they always have to tell you the worst-case scenario that could happen, and every time he (Owen) had a procedure, which were all life-threatening, what ended up happening was the best possible outcome,” said Canavan’s mother, Beth.

Canavan’s parents, who lived in New York City at the time, flew to Nashville right away and started asking family members and friends to pray for their son.

“I can’t imagine how many people were praying for Owen; there were prayer groups across the country,” said Beth. “These prayers and our faith got us through.”

In just two weeks, Canavan was in a stepdown unit at VUMC, making significant progress.

“It was a fairly rapid recovery, and I know some of that was God, of course; some of that was the team of doctors, nurses and support team, and some of that was due to my age and the shape I was in,” Canavan said.

Canavan was discharged to Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. He was doing so well that he was able to leave the facility one evening so he could take in some live music. As an artist manager at True Grit Management, he was eager to see a client perform on stage. But soon after they arrived, he felt weak and so they headed back to Stallworth.

Doctors determined Canavan had internal bleeding, and he ended up back in the VUMC trauma unit. It would be the first of several setbacks. In the weeks that followed, he experienced a blood clot that traveled to his lungs.

“Up until this point, I remained positive because of the progress, but I was like, ‘What is happening? Why is this happening?’” said Canavan. “It was my third readmit, and I was getting pretty sick of it.”

With the help of family and friends, Canavan focused on his future. He went from a wheelchair to a walker, to using a cane. Then on Father’s Day, in June 2017, he met his family at Husk restaurant in Nashville to celebrate.

“I walked without a cane or walker from the (restaurant) door to the car,” Canavan said. “My dad was crying; I was crying. It was just one more thing to celebrate.”

He would go through one more surgery to repair a hernia and abdominal adhesions, in 2018.

But it was on his birthday, March 5, 2019, that Canavan proved to himself he was finally ready to put the past behind him.

“I went back to the gym, and it was really emotional, but I just took it slow, and I’ve been there ever since, continuing to make progress,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody could get through something like this without a network of support,” Canavan said. “I am very lucky to have my parents, who I have been incredibly close to my whole life, my sister, Claire, my girlfriend, and a core group of buddies I consider brothers.”


Giving back

Owen poses for a photo with his mother, Beth Canavan.
Owen poses for a photo with his mother, Beth Canavan.

Every year since his accident, Canavan has brought lunch for the 10th floor trauma center team around the holidays. And as a family, the Canavans decided they would help support future trauma team members. Owen’s parents — Beth Owen Canavan and Karl Burgess Canavan — made a charitable contribution to VUMC to establish the Owen Burgess Canavan Fellowship Fund. The gift will support the fellowship program in the Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care.

“My healing comes from being present,” said Canavan. “My PTSD treatment is putting together this fellowship grant.”

“This fund is about helping people in the future and allows us to express our gratitude,” said Owen’s father, Karl.

“Not everyone can do the work that the Trauma staff does. It’s extraordinary, and the fact that they do it day in and day out still puts me in awe,” said Beth. “This is one way, we thought, to do something that could more deeply support the team and individuals.”

Rodrigo Rodriguez Grazioso, MD, clinical fellow in the division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care, is the first beneficiary of the fund.

“As young surgeons, sometimes it is difficult to gauge the quality and meaning of our work. However, awards such as the Owen Burgess Canavan Fellowship are what remind us of the impact we have on our patients and how appreciated our efforts can be,” said Grazioso.

Guillamondegui and Grazioso recently met with the Canavans over Zoom to talk about the experience and all the positive outcomes that came with it.

“I think Owen embodies everything that we hope humanity has to offer,” said Guillamondegui, who holds the Carol Ann Gavin Directorship in Trauma and Surgical Critical Care. “It gives me hope that if I am ever injured and put into a position that seems impossible, that I will be inspired by the Owen Canavans of the world to do better than I thought I could.”

It was his care team’s dedication that left a lasting impression on Canavan.

“The fact that I can exercise and live life without pain is truly incredible and a testament to the quality of care I received, which includes all the trauma doctors and nurses who were rooting for me all the way,” he said.

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