Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit and Sebastien Bellin

U-M Rehabilitates Belgium Terrorist Attack Survivor

How the inpatient rehabilitation team helped a severely injured, complex patient walk again

By Allison Wilson
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Sebastien Bellin was able to escape the first explosion during the terrorist attack at Brussels Airport on March 22 — but not the second.

Though he survived the bombing, ballistic fragments hit his right hip, shattering his femur and hip joint. He sustained fractures to his right fibula and his left fibula was blown into fragments after the explosion demolished the bone. His left leg, nearly detached from the knee down, had several open wounds — some deep enough to expose bone. He lost 50 percent of his blood.

“It was a rough time,” says Bellin, a 6-foot-9-inch basketball player who played at Oakland University in Michigan, as well as professionally, most recently for the Cercle d’Éducation Physique Fleurus club in Belgium.

After six successful surgeries in Brussels, Bellin returned to the U.S. and chose to continue his recovery at the University of Michigan Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit. There, he would be closer to his home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he lives with his wife and children, and benefit from what he felt would be a more proactive approach to rehab.

“They did a phenomenal job in Brussels,” he says. “But they told me I wouldn’t walk unassisted for a year, and I just didn’t believe that. I felt I needed hands-on, really top-of-the-line physical therapy and occupational therapy that would push me to my max, but at the same time make sure the recovery wasn’t going too far too quick.”

Bellin says he found that “ideal combination” under the care of Sean Smith, M.D. (Residency 2013), a physician specializing in physical medicine and instructor at the U-M Medical School.

“Even though [Bellin’s] injuries were really severe, he was in such good shape beforehand, and he was very motivated,” Smith says. “I knew as soon as his bones were strong enough to put physical weight on them he’d be walking pretty darn soon. He was a rather complex musculoskeletal case, but at the same time, it was something we were prepared for.”

Luckily, Bellin didn’t have any surgical complications, so his bones required only time and good nutrition to heal. Once tests validated that healing was taking place, the rehab team initiated a walking program for Bellin. He was doing weight-bearing exercises just 12 weeks after the explosion.

“I ended up being [on the unit] for two weeks, and I made so much progress they sent me home,” Bellin says. “I came into U-M in a wheelchair and I left on a walker and crutches.”

Bellin will continue his physical therapy in Battle Creek and make periodic visits to the U-M for check-ins with Smith and an orthopaedic surgeon. He has also been doing his own workouts on the elliptical machine and stationary bike, and says he is enjoying the “process of getting back into shape.”

Bellin’s story has received national media attention, including coverage on CNN, “CBS This Morning” and ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” CBS also filmed a special two-hour “48 Hours” documentary about Bellin, which will air in mid-November and feature appearances by the U-M rehab team.

“I was just trying to do right by Sebastien,” Smith says, chuckling about his role in the documentary. “It was fun to have the media here, and it was great to shine a light on [Bellin’s] story because it really is a great one. And it will showcase the great work that the acute inpatient rehabilitation unit does for patients. So I think it’s a win-win.”

The inpatient rehabilitation team includes medical doctors and residents, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, rehabilitation nurses, orthotists, social workers, discharge planners, and rehabilitation psychologists. Because Bellin also suffered a concussion during the explosion, he was evaluated by the team’s speech language pathologist. 

“As hard as we work, I always say the patient has the hardest job, which is to actually take charge and regain control of their body and their life, and Sebastian did an outstanding job,” Smith says. “He was a pleasure to work with and I think that this is a great example of how effective the rehabilitation team at the University of Michigan is when we get these complex patients that are flown in from all over the world.”

For his part, Bellin is more than happy to share the spotlight.

“The University of Michigan continues to be a very important part of my personal team and one that’s made a big difference,” Bellin says. “When you surround yourself with the best possible team, really positive things can happen.”

The University of Michigan Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit and Sebastien Bellin (back row, center)