Cathy’s perspective change took place in an instant on Aug. 9, 2013, while transporting her granddaughter and son’s girlfriend to the store to pick up little Olivia’s first birthday cake.
They were stopped at the end of an off ramp from the highway, waiting for the light to change so they could turn onto Alpine Avenue on the north-west side of Grand Rapids. A car driven by a man believed to have experienced a medical emergency careened into Cathy’s rear bumper, pushing her into the middle of the intersection.
It all happened in a flash.
One minute they were humming along to the radio and the next they had the streetlight sitting on top of their car and traffic all around them stopped.
While her family was rushed to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to evaluate Olivia’s injuries, rescuers cut through the mangled steel of her Saturn SL to release Cathy from its depths.
“When we were hit, I felt this warmth go through my back. Then I wasn’t in pain,” Cathy recalled. “In fact, I really couldn’t feel anything. Now I know that my vertebrae were broken.”
She credits the emergency personnel and entire medical team at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital with careful and effective treatment in a timely manner.
“I was told that immediate surgery was needed or I would never feel anything again,” Cathy said.
After surgery to fuse four mid-back vertebrae and insert instruments to support her spine, Cathy was fitted for a molded brace that stretched from her neck to her hips. The brace immobilized her spine and helped her heal more effectively.
After six days in the hospital she returned home and immediately began working with home care therapists to regain as much movement and freedom as possible.
The first step was an evaluation of her home related to Cathy’s current physical capacity and her goals.
“That is what is so awesome about what we do in patient’s homes,” said Judy Birkmeier, a physical therapist and Certified Brain Injury Specialist (CBIS) with Spectrum Health Neuro Rehabilitation Services Home Care. “We mold our therapy to their lives. We use their own step height and their own car height for learning to lift their leg to get up the steps or into the car.”
For Cathy’s occupational therapist, it was about getting her patient to be as independent as possible.
“What I do is not black and white,” said Maureen Fallon-Krueger, OTR, CBIS, occupational therapist with the home care service. “We look at what is holding a patient back from their independence and then seek ways to overcome that.”
Always a self-motivated go-getter, Cathy didn’t take time to worry about what had happened in the crash, she just asked how she could get back to “being Cathy” and then followed the program outlined by the home care team.
“She was doing things that were helping her to get back to her life. It reaffirms all the things that we do as therapists,” said Zach Pilczuk, MS, CCC-SLP, CBIS, a speech-language pathologist on the team. “Cathy’s core personality is compassion and positiveness and she was willing to try everything we suggested. That is what allowed her to progress.”
Cathy believes God answers prayers through people and their expertise.
“I prayed for healing to happen in my body and I was told by the doctor and therapists to exercise in a certain way, that right there is an answer to my prayers,” she said with conviction.
Pilczuk describes Cathy as relentless.
“No doubt she had physical injuries and was in pain, but when I would show up, I always had to be completely prepared for her because she was ready to work,” he said.
Birkmeier said a positive outlook has a huge impact on outcomes.
“Cathy has a can-do attitude and knew that this is where she was and this is what she had to do,” she said. “She was used to taking care of herself. She didn’t want anything other than that.”
Cathy deflects the praise back to her therapists, crediting them with her recovery.
“The therapists told me what I should and should not do. And, that’s what I did,” Cathy said. “I followed the rules.”
Pilczuk pointed out that when patients who’ve experienced a trauma like Cathy’s go home from the hospital, the free flow of the home environment can be overwhelming. It can become hard to field phone calls and recall who you spoke with or the content of the conversation.
Because of this, in Cathy’s case, he developed a cognitive-linguistic home exercise therapy program. This offered training and support to help her recover more memory as she progressed with her recovery.
“That is the hard part,” he said. “People can see the physical injuries, but they can’t see a cognitive-linguistic injury from an accident.”
Each member of the home care team working with Cathy collaborated on her treatment plan to maximize the time they spent in her home and improve her condition.
After five months of hard work, Cathy was released from therapy and encouraged to return to the things she most loves to do. In addition to volunteering at World Mission Thrift Store every week, Cathy has begun to go dancing with her friends again for entertainment.
“I can still dance,” she said with a laugh.
“I will never be the old Cathy. The old Cathy’s back didn’t have hardware in it. The old Cathy had five irons in the fire at once. I’m trying to be better at where I am now,” Cathy added. “I’ve been moved from one position in my life to another. But, I’m more centered now in my part of the world. I am ready to be the best that I can be in that.”