Gene Halbert is a fan of fall, football and play-by-play broadcasting for Michigan Sports Radio.
But when he started having trouble walking up stadium stairs to get to the press box, he knew it was time to revise his game plan.
After hip replacement surgery on Jan. 15, all seemed well until complications caught him behind the line of scrimmage.
“Things were going really, really well for two months,” Halbert said. “But then I started getting numbness in my fingers and legs. I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
Several times, Halbert inexplicably collapsed to the floor at his Belmont, Michigan, home. It was as if an unseen defender crumpled his legs and tackled him for a loss.
A life-changing diagnosis
At the encouragement of his wife, Joyce, Halbert sought help.
“They were going to do an MRI,” he said of the scheduled May 10 orthopedics appointment. “I got up and got ready to go.”
His hands slipped off the walker, he fell, and he dislocated his artificial hip. Joyce called an ambulance, which transported him to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.
After an extensive MRI, doctors discovered that Halbert had central canal stenosis of his cervical spine. This slowly progressing condition was gradually putting pressure on his spinal cord, causing weakness from the neck down.
The pressure on his cord had reached a critical level and, if left untreated, had the potential to leave him paralyzed, according to Linda Rusiecki, physical therapist at the Spectrum Health Center for Acute Rehabilitation at Blodgett Hospital.
Orthopaedic surgeon J. Todd Brown, DO, of Orthopaedic Associates of Michigan, operated to relieve the pressure and allow for Halbert’s ultimate rehabilitation.
“He responded very well to skillful surgical decompression,” Dr. Brown said. “A positive attitude seems to correlate to a happy outcome when combined with appropriate surgical treatment of this disease.”
‘I was able to do more than they expected’
It turns out Halbert didn’t only broadcast competitive challenges. He lived one.
“When Gene arrived in rehab, he was confused, disoriented and hallucinating,” Rusiecki said. “He had very little use of his arms. He couldn’t put any weight through his left leg. His right leg was very, very weak. Initially, our therapy treatments consisted of getting him up on a tilt table, just to tolerate an upright position without passing out.”
Wearing a hip brace from his thigh to above his hip, Halbert concentrated on physical, occupational and speech therapy three times a day.
“The thing that surprised them was I was able to do more than they expected,” Halbert said. “I tried to do what they wanted and more. I had just about every therapist there working on me at one time or another.”
For a man who had just stepped into his retirement years, Halbert had to learn to walk all over again.
Parallel bars, leg lifts, encouragement from family members and therapists, grit and determination, all played a part.
“It was probably three or four weeks until I could use my left leg,” Halbert recalled.
Although he admires his six grandchildren, he admitted he could have done without being taken to their level.
“They had to teach me how to go up and down stairs,” Halbert said. “That’s about what I felt like—a kid learning how to walk—and I know how difficult that is.”
Halbert turned out to be a shining star at therapy and regained most of his strength. He graduated from the Center for Acute Rehabilitation in late June, and continued with outpatient therapy. He still walks with a cane to help with balance.
“Gene made amazing progress,” Rusiecki said. “His cognition completely normalized and his thinking cleared. He regained all of the strength in his hands and all of the strength in his legs. He left our facility able to walk with a four-wheeled walker. He was able to get up and down a flight of stairs.”
Rusiecki said Joyce’s constant companionship was also key to her husband’s healing.
“Her love and dedication gave Gene something to fight for,” Rusiecki said. “Every step of the way, I knew he was working toward his goal of being back with her at home.”
Halbert said a barrage of get well cards from fellow members at Rockford Springs Community Church also helped his healing.
Halbert said he looks forward to revisiting the driving range and nearby fishing holes.
“I think the thing I’m most grateful about is not living with constant pain in my hip,” Halbert said. “A lot of the pain came from going up and down steps at press boxes.”
He can do that again now, as he anticipates the game ahead.
“I can walk up the press box steps again, with both hands on the rail,” he said.
And once the kickoff sails, his mind is firmly on the plays in front of him, knowing regardless of the score of this particular game, he’s coming out a winner.