Dr. Gael Yonnet began working at Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo in October. When he first started medical school at the University of Utah, he planned to go into neurology. That changed during his last year in school.
"I entered a snowboard contest, and I got paralyzed from it. I fell 40 feet," said Yonnet.
Yonnet said he overshot the landing on a jump, crashed and lost consciousness for a short time.
"People came and asked me what's the day and I know exactly. Today is March 4, 2006," said Yonnet. "It was about 11 a.m., and I had no pain right then. I tried to move, and I couldn't. Tried to move my legs and couldn't."
He was taken by helicopter to the very hospital where he worked as a medical student.
"I had two neuro surgeries to stabilize my back because I broke seven vertebrae and five ribs," he said. "I was pretty bad."
He spent two months at in-patient rehab. The native of France admits adjusting to life in a wheelchair wasn't easy at first.
"I was very depressed not to have use of my legs anymore, and then a patient of mine who was a quadriplegic (and) couldn't move his arms told me, 'I wish I had your arms,' and that was a key moment," Yonnet said. "If someone else can be envious of me for what I have, I have to be thankful I still have it."
After the accident, Yonnet decided to specialize in rehabilitation -- specifically working with spinal cord injuries, amputations, brain injuries, strokes and multiple sclerosis.
One of the main reasons he came to Iowa is because Covenant Medical Center offered to help him with a multiple sclerosis clinic.
He said Iowa has the least number of providers for people with MS.
One of his patients at Covenant Medical Center is Nancy O'Connor. She was paralyzed from polio at just 11 months old. She works with Dr. Yonnet to maintain the function she has and to prevent further limitations.
"He had communications that were for me and about me from the very start. He's compassionate. He's an exceptional physician," said O'Connor.
Besides patient interactions, Dr. Yonnet has a constant companion -- his service dog, Talix. Talix goes with him everywhere and offers assistance if necessary.
Yonnet said the accident seven years ago taught him never to take anything for granted. Today, he continues to stay active through hand cycling, tennis, climbing and sit-skiing.
"I think that's the key to happiness: It's accepting who you are, and living in your abilities and maximizing your potential," said Yonnet.
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