When lives fall apart, rehabilitation puts them back together

I almost didn’t write this column.

In my career, I’ve written about thousands of people, but I dislike writing about me. I mean, I can share little anecdotes about me, but people who know me know that I’m generally not compelled to share private things about myself.

I don’t care for folks who just blab and blab about themselves. It’s tacky. The Internet is polluted with them. I strive not to be one of those people.

But this is different.

This week is National Rehabilitation Awareness Week. Dennis Skelley, the president and CEO of Walton Rehabilitation Health System, devotes a guest column to that subject in today’s Opinion section, about the amazing process of shepherding patients to wellness.

When I read it, I couldn’t help seeing myself.

Now comes the personal part.

IN 2008, a CT scan for what I thought was simple back pain turned out to reveal an advanced case of pancreatitis. For almost four months, I spent time in four different Augusta hospitals fighting off a systemic infection that almost killed me.

That isn’t hyperbole. I spent my first hospitalized month virtually unconscious. My immune system was compromised. During another CT scan, when my blood pressure dropped like a rock, a quick-thinking medical team had to bring me back to life. A priest had even performed last rites over me.

Thanks to tireless medical professionals, my family’s love, my friends’ prayers and a chronic stubborn streak, I survived.

But I couldn’t walk.

Despite what some TV movies or soap operas might indicate, folks who have been bedridden for a few months don’t just leap out of bed and start dancing the fox trot. I certainly wanted to – and I don’t even like to fox trot. I do like walking, though. And I spent a lot of nights lying in my hospital bed wondering when that would happen again.

About a week or so before Thanksgiving 2008, an ambulance took me to my fourth and final hospital – Walton Rehab. For the next five weeks or so, I spent several hours each weekday relearning how to do things most everyone takes for granted, such as dressing myself and swallowing solid food.

The hardest work took place in the physical therapy rooms. You think you know how your own body works. Thankfully, the wonderful medical pros there knew more about my body than I did. Day by day, whether I thought so or not, I was gaining strength and dexterity.

But I still was in a wheelchair.

Then one day, on a day my regular therapist wasn’t there, I was paired with another therapist – I think his name was Tony. He wheeled me into Walton’s big therapy area and said, “Today, we’re going to get you to walk.” It sounded as believable as me winning a billion dollars.

But what happened next made me feel like I hit the jackpot. Steadied by a walker and Tony’s expert encouragement, I took my first two steps in three months.

WHEN THE FOLKS at Walton learned that I lived in a two-story house, they put me to work relearning how to climb stairs. When I told them that I do a lot of the cooking in my family, they put me in a test kitchen so I could reacquaint myself with the range of motion I would need to accomplish those kinds of tasks. The resulting batch of peanut butter cookies I made never tasted so good.

Those therapists helped me get my life back.

But my story is just one of countless thousands, and it’s far from being the most remarkable. That distinction I would have to give to Aimee Copeland, the indescribably brave 24-year-old Snellville woman who spent so much time in Augusta this year battling a flesh-destroying disease that took a leg, a foot and both her hands.

This past week, she appeared on Katie Couric’s new nationwide talk show – and Aimee walked onto the stage with the help of a new prosthetic limb. I defy you to watch video footage of that moment without being deeply moved.

And what a dose of good news this past week about Richmond County School Superintendent Frank Roberson. Nineteen months after undergoing emergency brain surgery, doctors have cleared him to return to work full-time.

Their lives would be much different today if it weren’t for rehabilitation therapists.

Before 2008, I never had been hospitalized. Never broke a bone. Never even had my tonsils out. Now, after my long stay in several hospitals, I have a stronger-than-ever respect for the tireless work performed by all medical professionals, but especially rehab therapists. When an illness or accident shatters your life to pieces, rehab puts those pieces back together.

And to all the amazing people who helped put me back together, thank you.

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Riverman1 09/16/12 - 06:38 am
Joe, Touching Revelation

I'm glad to see you recovered, Joe. It appears you have been through a lot. Eventually, most of us will go through some type of serious medical treatment. We think we are invincible and never worry about our health until we have a problem. Thank goodness there are teams of professionals to help us.

seenitB4 09/16/12 - 08:22 am

Thanks for that story Joe...yeh...we all will go through something if we live long enough......I will admit my own pain has given me compassion for others........I open more doors..help others in need...give up good parking spots & do it gladly now.

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