In early 2021, Eric Backlund felt a sudden pain somewhere in his gut. No matter what position he tried, the pain wouldn’t ease.
The next few weeks were a blur.
The Holland, Michigan, resident remembers going to an emergency department at a local hospital, followed by a move to a bigger hospital—Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids.
It was February 2021.
Snow swirled on the other side of the hospital window.
He learned his diagnosis—acute necrotizing pancreatitis, caused by a gallstone blockage. He later came to understand his pancreas had been failing. His condition could potentially be fatal.
“I was told I would need dialysis,” Backlund, 56, said. “And they started me on that right away, four times a week.
“My kidneys were failing and I was told I would be insulin-dependent for life, because that’s what the pancreas does—produce insulin.”
Fluid had accumulated in his body.
“There were tubes attached to me on both sides, draining away the fluid,” he said.
When his respiratory function worsened, doctors placed him on an oxygen machine. They also inserted a tube into his nose to deliver nutrition, but when he had trouble with that they switched to a feeding tube directly to his belly.
Weeks turned into months. Winter gave way to spring.
“Even with a feeding tube, my body wasn’t absorbing the nutrition,” Backlund said. “I’m 5 foot, 8 inches and was always an active guy, although I could probably have lost a bit of weight. But not as much as I lost over those months. I lost about 80 pounds.”
Backlund struggled against weakness and battled other complications.
Then, something like a miracle happened.
“My pancreas started to respond,” Backlund said. “It surprised everybody.”
With part of his pancreas still functioning, his kidneys began to respond, too.
“This was maybe two-and-a-half, three months in,” he recalled. “So eventually I didn’t need the daily insulin anymore. I was eventually able to stop dialysis.”
But even as Backlund’s organs began to rebound, his muscles had atrophied from lying in a hospital bed for so many weeks. His weakness persisted.
Backlund soon met with Patrick Mullan, DO, from the Spectrum Health Inpatient Acute Rehabilitation Center.
“His was one of the most severe cases of myopathy—muscle weakness,” Dr. Mullan, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, said.
He recommended an increase in physical activity to strengthen Backlund’s muscles.
“When a patient is critically sick, the body focuses its limited resources where they are most needed,” Dr. Mullan said. “Some activity can remind the body to use those atrophied muscles again.”
For Backlund, movement seemed almost impossible. But inside his body, a strong will persisted.
“I kept thinking about my wife, Pam,” Backlund said. “And my son, Preston. He’s 13. I was able to see Pam, but because of COVID, I hadn’t seen my boy in three months.”
Rehabilitation would pave his road home.
In July, Backlund transferred to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Blodgett Hospital.
“At that point, the most he could do was to sit up on the edge of his bed—and he needed help for that,” Spectrum Health physical therapist Linda Rusiecki said.
The rehabilitation center has exactly what Backlund needed—a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary strategy to rehabilitate patients battling serious illness or injury.
Backlund worked with physical and occupational therapists, as well as team members who ensured he could handle increasing levels of activity.
The team guided the way, but the drive to succeed had to come from Backlund.
“He pushed himself,” Rusiecki said. “As we worked with him, he pushed himself until he was dripping sweat, tuckered out—and still wanted to keep going.”
From the edge of his bed, Backlund graduated to a wheelchair. Then he moved to parallel bars to help him take a few steps. Then to a four-wheeled walker.
“We used an exercise machine with Eric that helped him exercise all four limbs at the same time,” physical therapist Joe Ross said. “We pushed him past his comfort zone, but Eric asked for that. He wanted to get better.”
Occupational therapist Kassie Roon helped Backlund pin down his goals to make incremental gains.
“That’s our role in occupational therapy, to help a patient with the daily tasks of everyday life—such as getting dressed, taking a shower, using the bathroom—then tasks such as cooking and doing the laundry,” Roon said. “We use a mock apartment to simulate home.”
Backlund took comfort in the strides forward.
“It felt good to move again,” he said. “It was hard work, but eventually I was able to walk 50 steps, then 75, then 300 with the help of a walker. And a few days ago, I was able to walk a lap around the workout room with a walker.”
Each day, he looked forward to getting updates on his bloodwork. Doctors monitored his potassium levels and watched for any signs of trouble.
“Transitioning to real food after being on a feeding tube can sometimes throw off things like potassium, and that’s important for my kidneys,” Backlund said.
Finally, the big day came—Backlund’s physician gave him the nod to return home on July 30.
He could look forward once again to the simple pleasures, such as camping with family.
“I am still using the walker for support, but I can’t wait to be home with Pam and Preston,” Backlund said before heading home. “I couldn’t have gotten through this without them. Pam has been my rock.”