Patients Share Inspiring Recovery Stories at Inpatient Rehabilitation Reunion
It was a sunny July day in 2008 and Leah Sanson had just spent the day at the beach with friends. On their way home, Sanson and three other girls were crammed in the backseat of a friend's car when a truck broadsided them on a Grant County country road.
Sanson, then 17, fractured her neck when the truck smashed into the back passenger side door at 60 miles per hour. Her friend in the back seat also sustained severe injuries.
"God bless all of us who were in that accident, because all of us are nowhere near where we should be," said Sanson, now 20, who was hospitalized for seven weeks at UW Hospital and Clinics in Madison after the crash.
Told she had about a five percent chance of ever walking again, the teenager from Lancaster, Wis., never doubted she'd beat those long odds.
"Basically, I was determined. I was not down," recalls Sanson. "I told myself, I'm going to work through this."
Now a student at Edgewood College, Sanson recently returned to the place where all that hard work paid off. With the help of a funky iridescent purple cane adorned with tiny flowers and a shiny cherry wood handle, Sanson was able to walk into a reunion for UW Hospital and Clinics inpatient rehabilitation patients.
Though she says she "feels like an old person sometimes" – her neck injury still affects everything from her gait to her ability to grasp a pen – she continues to push herself in her recovery.
"I want people to see how far you can get with a positive attitude," Sanson says. "You have to find it in yourself to keep pushing on."
Sharing Inspiring Rehabilitation Stories
Sanson and her proud parents, Rick and Ellen, were among more than 100 inpatient rehabilitation patients and family members who gathered in the atrium of the Health Sciences Learning Center to celebrate each other's inspiring stories and catch up with rehabilitation staff members who were so critical to their recovery.
Often, rehabilitation staff members wonder what happened to patients after their initial hospitalization and therapy, UW Hospital and Clinics president and chief executive officer Donna Katen-Bahensky told the reunion participants.
"Seeing you again will make them feel very good about what they have done," Katen-Bahensky said. "It is an honor and a privilege to be able to care for you while you were here, but it's an even bigger honor and a privilege to see you back here."
Katen-Bahensky quoted Mahatma Gandhi in noting that strength does not come from physical capacity – it comes from an indomitable will.
"Through your will to recover, you have given us a great gift," she said.
Learning 'New Ways of Living'
For Michael Ward, MD, medical director of inpatient acute rehabilitation at UW Hospital and Clinics, that gift includes unique knowledge of what it means to be a human being.
"You learn that humanity is a lot bigger than some narrow set of expectations you might have that all people function in a very similar and specific way," Dr. Ward said, adding that it's been amazing in his rehabilitation work to meet so many people who have to learn entirely new ways of living due to accidents or illnesses that change their life experiences in very fundamental and profound ways.
Diagnostically, inpatient rehabilitation patients are very diverse, notes Jack Sherman, PhD, a senior clinical psychologist in rehabilitation at UW Hospital and Clinics. People enter rehab due to acute traumatic injuries resulting in spinal cord, brain or complex orthopedic injuries; medical issues such as cardiac arrest or stroke; or debilitation as a result of protracted hospitalization or chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Regardless of the reasons they come to rehab, they all share two experiences, Sherman says – they all have experienced loss, and they face uncertainties.
Adjusting to Loss and Uncertainty
They must also grapple with changes in their roles as spouses, workers and parents, just to name a few. And the natural response to this kind of loss and uncertainty typically is sadness and worry.
"The truth is, most of our patients prove to be amazingly resilient," says Sherman. "That is, even though they experience loss and uncertainty, they show a tremendous ability to bounce back and make the best of their situations."
That's exactly what EJ and Cathy Skaife have tried to do after their motorcycle accident on Mother's Day three years ago. On that beautiful spring day, just six miles from their home in Platteville, Wis., the Skaifes' Harley-Davidson collided with a truck pulling out of a driveway onto a country road. EJ was airlifted by Med Flight to UW Hospital. Cathy was initially taken to a Platteville hospital before being transferred to UW Hospital with serious injuries.
Cathy, now 56, lost her right leg and fractured her arm. She had so much "road rash" from the accident that she developed a serious infection. EJ, now 58, also lost his right leg below the knee, as well as the sight in his left eye.
Telling their story to the crowd of former patients and families gathered at the rehabilitation reunion, the Skaifes described their long road to recovery, which has continued even after EJ returned to work as a machine operator and Cathy as a waitress at a Platteville restaurant.
For months, they both spent up to four hours a day in physical therapy, learning how to walk again, as well as everyday tasks like getting dressed and taking a shower.
"It's a lot of things to learn – to learn how to re-do," EJ said.
Gratitude for Inpatient Rehabilitation Staff
Both EJ and Cathy said they owe a lot to the rehabilitation staff at UW Hospital, who helped them adjust to their "new normal." When they return to Madison for therapy appointments, they always stop on the inpatient rehab floor to visit with "the girls" from the rehab staff.
"I can't say enough about UW Hospital. Even the valet parking people are fantastic," Cathy said. "You guys have been a lifesaver."
The Skaifes also share their story with driver education classes, showing sheriff's department photos of the accident scene to bolster their message about attentive driving.
"We just want them to realize that you have to slow down and pay attention to what you're doing," EJ says. "You never think (an accident) is going to happen, but it does."
And when it does, the effects are long-ranging, both physically and emotionally. Riding motorcycles used to be the Skaifes' passion – it wasn't uncommon for them to log 10,000 miles a year on their Harley. While EJ has started riding again, Cathy is more tentative.
"I'm going to try it this summer,: Cathy says determinedly.
It's all part of moving on and moving forward, the Skaifes say.
"There were days when you'd think, 'why did this happen to me, to us? How am I going to get through this?'" Cathy said. "But you will. You will get through this."
Date Published: 06/28/2011