Jenn Essenyi knows her way around the Outpatient Rehabilitation Clinic at the Spectrum Health South Pavilion.
The 44-year-old Gaines Township resident moved seamlessly from the treadmill to the exercise mat to the weight equipment. She wrapped up her physical therapy session with a series of lunges down the hallway, followed by plank exercises to strengthen her core.
“As always, I’m a sweaty mess,” Essenyi said. “But it’s the only way I’m going to get my life back.”
Her goal is clear: She wants to return to her calling as a nurse, working 12-hour hospital shifts.
It’s a job that demands concentration, stamina and quick thinking—all of which a drunk driver had snatched away about 15 months ago.
Fortunately, since spring she’s been regaining it all with what she calls “the A team.”
After working a night shift in August 2017, Essenyi climbed into her Lincoln Navigator and headed home. At about 1:30 a.m., a vehicle driven by a drunk driver slammed into the back of her Navigator.
After the police arrived and sorted things out, Essenyi remained shaky and nauseated and had a horrible headache.
“That truck saved my life,” Essenyi said. “Praise the lord, I drive that tank.”
Two days later, she went to a local emergency room, where doctors diagnosed her with a severe concussion. Making matters worse, she had suffered concussions twice before. As she learned, multiple concussions can lead to more severe symptoms and a more difficult recovery.
The next five months became a blur.
Her concussion caused intense pain and a host of neurological issues: vertigo, vision problems, speech issues, debilitating headaches and, eventually, depression. She only felt comfortable wearing sunglasses and she depended on industrial ear plugs to muffle normal noises, which to her sounded like someone screaming into a megaphone.
The woman who once loved her job as an oncology nurse could work no more.
“My life came to a halt,” she said.
Enter the A team
The recovery process had a bumpy start as Essenyi grappled with frustration and feelings of failure. During an attack of intense vertigo, she fell and damaged her hip.
“I was hitting so many walls,” Essenyi said. “I really experienced what it’s like to be helpless.”
In desperation, she called a friend who works with Spectrum Health neurology patients. He recommended Aashish Deshpande, MD, a Spectrum Health physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.
So began a new chapter.
“He was kind, straight-to-the point, understanding and honest,” Essenyi said.
Dr. Deshpande’s comprehensive concussion program included all the help she needed: a neuro-optometrist, a neurologist, and a cadre of Spectrum Health physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists.
“I want my life back, and they are the A team,” Essenyi said. “The A team came in when I was down and out and discouraged. There’s no way I could have made it without this huge, amazing group of people.”
Turning points included prism glasses to correct vision issues, treatment to eliminate unbearable headaches, sensory integration rehabilitation, and even a driver’s assessment when she was ready to get back on the road.
Physical therapist Kristina Willyard is part of the team, helping Essenyi recover from surgery to repair a torn labrum in her left hip.
During each therapy session, she guides Essenyi through strength, stamina and agility exercises, praising her hard work and reminding her to use proper form.
When Essenyi announces she’s “feeling the burn” and mops away the perspiration, Willyard encourages her to keep going.
“A workout is work,” Willyard said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be a workout.”
As Essenyi held the plank pose, Willyard distracted her with little anecdotes to make the time pass quickly.
Essenyi spends more than two hours a day doing her prescribed exercises at home, which she follows with a speech therapy routine that focuses on cognitive skills.
“She really pushes herself,” Willyard said. “She is so determined.”
Essenyi will soon move into the third and final phase of her therapy.
“I want my life back and the only way to get that strength and flexibility and endurance is to do my program,” she said.
She’s already beginning to envision the day she’ll be ready to put her nurse’s shoes back on.
She spends time each day listening to podcasts and brushing up on her skills. She’s building her endurance, determined to regain the stamina it takes to work a 12-hour nursing shift.
“I take great pride in being a safe-practicing nurse,” she said. “That’s somebody’s human in that hospital bed, so I need to be on my A game. That’s a big deal.
“God will put me where I’m supposed to be,” she said.