How the CrossFit Community is Helping Carolyn Bajic Build Back After Her Legs Gave Out
In July 2023, after several years as a CrossFit athlete and coach, Carolyn Bajic took her L-2. She left the weekend energized and ready to put her new knowledge to work.
- Less than two months later, she would be in intense pain, unable to walk, and wondering when she would ever be able to pick up a barbell again.
It all started when she was 23 years old and diagnosed with Lupus. One night, Bajic noticed her fingers and feet incredibly swollen and in pain. Her doctor told her she had Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Bajic took her health into her own hands, cleaned up her diet, went vegan, and started working out. Her health initially improved, but soon the inflammation returned. Blood work was done, and the final verdict was that she had Lupus.
- Lupus occurs when the immune system, which usually helps protect the body from infection and disease, attacks its own tissues. This attack causes inflammation and, in some cases, permanent tissue damage, which can be widespread.
Weeks after Bajic completed her L-2, she started getting tired and worn down. She knew it was a symptom of her Lupus, so she tried to rest and shake it off. She headed to Madison shortly after to watch the CrossFit Games, and after she returned, it escalated quickly.
- Bajic: “The day after I got home, I called off work because I was so tired. Then I started feeling like I couldn’t hold food down. A migraine started soon after, and that got worse every day. A few days later, I had a fever and chills and started vomiting. Horrible back pain started too, and it kept getting worse and worse.”
A member of Bajic’s family drove her to the emergency room, and as Bajic went to get out of the car, her legs gave out from under her.
As she was helped into the ER and a wheelchair, she realized how fast things had turned.
- “I felt a tingling painful sensation, like needles in my legs. Then I started noticing that something was wrong with my feet. My feet were out of the wheelchair–I had my slip-ons on, and my foot just dangled. I tried to put my foot back on the chair but noticed I couldn’t move it anymore. This happened in a matter of 45 minutes.”
The pain was so acute that Bajic wasn’t scared–she didn’t have time to think–but as soon as the two shots of morphine kicked in, so did the fear.
She couldn’t feel her legs.
She was quickly transferred to RUSH University Medical Center near downtown Chicago, where she underwent tests.
She was finally diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a disorder of the nervous system linked to inflammation of the spinal cord.
- This condition is extremely rare and affects about one percent of lupus patients.
- Bajic was in the hospital for almost three weeks. She was told that recovery was possible, but there was always a chance for relapse if her lupus wasn’t properly managed.
The hospital stay wasn’t easy:
- “It took a toll on me being poked and prodded constantly. I went into a depression phase and said to myself, this cannot be my life. I had my moment–I cried and let it all out. Then, I just came to acceptance. I had to give myself a pep talk, and I knew this could take time, but it was not going to be the end.”
- “If I end up in a wheelchair, I know I’m going at least to live life; I didn’t die from this. I’m still alive, and I’m still able to do certain things if not everything. If there’s hope, then I’ll take the two years to try to recover.”
After her diagnosis, Bajic was transferred to Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, one of the premier rehabilitation facilities located in Chicago. The facility treats patients for stroke, spinal cord, and brain injuries. It is a live-in facility, and Bajic has been there for about a month.
The facility has a floor dedicated to anything that could medically affect movement–spinal cord injuries, strokes, cancer, and a floor for pediatrics.
- “There are group therapies here, so we interact with patients from different floors. So when I see someone who doesn’t have mobility in their legs and arms and are completely paralyzed, I’m just grateful that I have my upper body. Knowing that patients worse off than me are still working hard to do the therapy, I can too.”
It was quite a perspective shift.
- “It makes you think there are other things to worry about in life more than petty stuff. I keep telling my friends to enjoy life now because you don’t know what tomorrow brings.”
After days of physical and occupational therapy, Bajic will transition home soon and participate in outpatient therapy. The day we talked, she was fit for her wheelchair, which she has been getting used to using in the city.
It has opened her eyes.
- “It gave me anxiety to learn how to use it. You’re using so much of your shoulders and upper body to control it, and you are weaving through crowds on the street, just making sure you’re not getting hit by a car. You need to have quick reflexes to just move. I’m happy I live in the suburbs.”
She realized the lack of wheelchair accessibility and the effort it took to simply run an errand.
- “So many places don’t have wheelchair ramps, so I have to research before going somewhere. Am I able to get in the front entrance? And then, will it be a tight squeeze into a restaurant or grocery store? Now, with everything, I must do my due diligence before going anywhere.”
Bajic has set herself a goal to be out of the wheelchair in a year, and she is thankful she has a village behind her to lend support.
Her CrossFit community has been vital.
The owner of her affiliate, Arnel Delosreyes, has organized a GoFundMe page, and the athletes are doing a special workout for Bajic to help raise money and awareness.
She will be in house to see it all go down.
- “I’m going to be very emotional. I’m a very private person, and I don’t ask for help. I’m always the one there helping everyone else. So when Arnel came out to me saying he wanted to do a GoFundMe and wanted to organize a workout for me, I started crying.”
Looking ahead to how this will affect her coaching style, Bajic doesn’t think much will be different.
- “I don’t think it will change anything. I was always a positive person. To myself and my clients. I will tell them to take each day as their last, though – you never know what tomorrow will bring.”
- “Some of my clients who are my friends now see me and comment on how positive I am – it is shocking for all of them with what happened. But knowing that I’m positive, they’re positive. And I bring that energy to the gym. They will learn how just to keep going…like me.”
Want to support Bajic and her recovery? Check out the GoFundMe page, set up by her affiliate, CrossFit Caliber.