Pa. man describes long road to recovery after 2007 head-on crash

John Ulsh credits his survival to surgeons, God and his athleticism

April 12, 2012|By JENNIFER FITCH |
  • Carlisle, Pa., resident John Ulsh talks about his experiences after a Franklin County, Pa., car collision in 2007 left him comatose and near death. Ulsh was the featured speaker at a Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday at the Chambersburg Country Club.
By Jennifer Fitch, Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — A man left comatose and near death after a Franklin County, Pa., car collision in 2007, returned to the county Thursday morning to share his story of recovery.

Carlisle, Pa., resident John Ulsh credited surgeons, God and his athleticism with surviving numerous injuries that included a broken pelvis, spinal damage, the rupturing of his diaphragm and spleen, lacerations and a collapsed lung.

He remained comatose at Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center for 15 days after the Dec. 1, 2007, accident on Pa. 16 near Heisey Road outside Mercersburg, Pa.

“I had 17 surgeries those 15 days to put me back together,” Ulsh said.

Ulsh, 40, served as the featured speaker at a Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Chambersburg Country Club.

The chamber presented awards to member businesses and a student volunteer, and its top “Hall of Fame” honor to organization supporter and retiree Lucille Stence.


Tears were shed as Ulsh described the head-on collision and the after-effects on his family. He talked about receiving a letter from a woman whose son came upon the accident, dialed 911 and tried to help before authorities arrived.

The son saw Ulsh’s then 8-year-old daughter climbing into the front seats of the car in search of a cellphone.

“He said she was crying, ‘Daddy, don’t die,’” Ulsh said.

Ulsh, his wife, Tonia, and their two children had left a swimming meet in Mercersburg and were talking about buying a Christmas tree on the way home. The other car crossed the center line; its driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

Everyone from the Ulsh family was hospitalized. An ambulance transported Tonia from Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown to Hershey so that she could be at her husband’s bedside when he died.

Instead, Ulsh, a former marathon runner, never stopped fighting. He was transferred between the hospital, a nursing home and a rehabilitation center before returning home in a wheelchair in 2008. He hoped to run a 5K on the Thanksgiving following the accident, but was unable to until 2011.

“If you’re passionate about your goal, the beauty is in the process of your goal,” said Ulsh, who said he inspired members of the Carlisle Family YMCA and they inspired him.

Today, Ulsh blogs about recovery and motivation at

“It turns out life — just like recovery — is a bunch of first steps,” he said of the decisions we make daily.

Summit Health’s Patricia Barbarowicz won the Athena Award. Other winners at the breakfast sponsored by M&T Bank were The Igloo, Ping’s Restaurant, MedExpress Urgent Care, Chambersburg Area Senior High School, Norland Avenue Pharmacy, The Baxter Group Inc., Blake Truman and Morgan Shadle.

Two women suffered medical issues during the event, causing two ambulances to respond to the country club.

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