An OT’s Journey through Injury

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Skilled rehab and assistive devices make one therapist’s life whole again.

I have been an occupational therapist for almost 20 years. I’ve worked in a variety of settings, been a rehab manager, and even started my own contracting business. My job was to make people better and help regain their independence.

I never thought I’d be a patient in need of therapy services. But it happened. Due to a tumor in the center of my spinal cord at T7-8, I became partially paralyzed. Life for my entire family changed overnight.

I remained in the hospital’s spinal cord rehab center for a month where I learned to sit up, balance, and attempt standing with no sensation below my rib cage. Over time, with lots of help, encouragement, laughs and tears by the therapist, nurses, my family and friends, I was eventually able to walk with a walker. Although my physical recovery was celebrated and I eventually made it back home, there were very dynamic changes within my family that no one could have prepared us for.

My husband and daughters had to take on new responsibilities that were once mine. My 16-year-old became my driver. Both she and my 12-year-old became my assistants in just about all tasks when doing errands, taking care of the house, and helping with my care. My parents moved in to help with the girls, school activities, doctors’ appointments, and the list goes on — all so my husband could continue to work to pay the bills, since we were suddenly down to one income.

Everyone managed their stress and frustration a little differently. My husband was very supportive through all of this, but said very little to me about how he felt and how he was coping with all the changes. My 16-year-old became angry and internalized everything, with few discussions with me about how she felt. My 12-year-old became my cheerleader, encouraging me at every turn, but missed her mom being a part of everything like I used to be. There was no sense of normalcy despite our best efforts to find it.

Eventually, it became safe enough for me to be home alone. My parents moved out, the girls were back in school, and my husband was working harder than ever to make ends meet. That left me a prisoner in my own home.

Some days were better than others. I could make myself get up and exercise, attempt some household task, and plan meals. Other days were spent in bed with no desire to do anything. Fortunately, a very special friend stepped up and helped me stay motivated to keep fighting. Slowly, I was able to resume some basic tasks, with each one a sign of getting stronger, but still not quite normal.

After 11 months, I finally had the strength and endurance to get my vehicle modified with a left foot control. It was such an amazing feeling to drive again. To go from the independent mom who balanced work and kids’ activities to becoming dependent on someone taking me places was very frustrating and depressing.  But I didn’t realize how much it affected my daughters and husband.

Within the first week of me driving again, it was as if a level of stress had been lifted from my entire family. I could now drive our youngest to and from school, cheer practice, and activities. I could complete simple errands again and drive to church. My husband could return to his normal schedule, knowing I had the kids covered.

I didn’t realize how much it meant until I was driving each of my girls separately. I asked them how it felt for me to be driving. Their responses were the same: “it just feels normal.”

“Normal” was not a word anyone had said or felt since my surgery. I couldn’t help but smile and agree. As an occupational therapist, I’m aware of how assistive devices can help someone regain their independence. But as with most life events, you don’t realize how much until it happens to you. While I have yet to return to work, I am very thankful for my left foot control and the feeling of “just normal.”

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Kim Nay
Kim Nay

Kim Nay is an occupational therapist in Greenville, N.C.

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