Cancer: Mina Fuller's Story - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Mina Fuller's Story

A Life Back in Balance

Mina Fuller's Patient Story

Mina Fuller, 53, felt shattered when she discovered she had a brain tumor.

Fuller, a Chicago police officer, was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a golf ball in 2006. As part of her cancer treatment, she underwent surgery that left her with a brain injury. Barely able to walk and speak, the surgery also affected her hearing and resulted in seizures and dizziness.  

After her initial recovery, Fuller’s physicians referred her to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) in early 2007 to participate in its Cancer Rehabilitation Program on an outpatient basis. After four months of aquatic therapy, Fuller regained muscle strength and learned to walk on her own again. Holding a therapist’s arm, Fuller would tread slowly through a pool of water helping her learn to balance in a weightless environment. To strengthen her arms and upper body, therapists aided her in doing push ups on a bar placed just below the water’s surface.        

Gaining a New-Found Confidence

As she discovered new confidence in her abilities, Fuller’s therapy moved onto dry land, where she was led through three months of additional physical therapy. Her routine included Pilates and work with resistance bands and stability balls to further strengthen her muscles.           

During this period of therapy, Kathryn Naab, DPT, a physical therapist at RIC, noticed that Fuller often appeared unsteady when she stood up after exercising. When Naab asked Fuller, she admitted that she had been feeling dizzy for the previous month but had not mentioned it because she assumed it was one of the natural side effects of brain surgery and would go away in time.

Naab immediately arranged for Fuller to undergo a vestibular and balance evaluation. Naab, certified in vestibular therapy, worked with Fuller to reduce her dizziness, enhance utilization of her remaining sensory systems and rebuild muscle strength and flexibility for improved motor responses.

The brain surgery also had damaged Fuller’s optical nerves, and she had trouble correctly gauging how far she was from people and objects. This had made her extremely tentative and afraid to walk outside, fearing she may injure herself. In addition to eye exercises, such as tracking moving objects to strengthen her optical nerves, Fuller began therapy to regain the ability to walk on her own. For four days a week, from four to five hours a day, she and Naab started in the halls of RIC, walking close to the wall at first and then gradually moving to the center of the hall where Fuller could not hold on to anything. They then moved to a stairwell where Fuller climbed five steps holding onto the hand rail, ultimately progressing to multiple flights of stairs holding Naab’s arm.

“I started out only being able to walk 30 feet and each day we would try more, covering 130 feet,” recalls Fuller.          

The most challenging part for Fuller came when they moved outside to cross streets and walk in the neighborhood around RIC. Fuller had spent little time outside since her surgery, and it was like venturing into an unfamiliar world full of potential dangers. Everyday noises, such as car horns, sounded louder than they really were, and she had trouble telling how far she actually was from moving vehicles. Naab led her through exercises that built on the lessons she had already obtained, such as following moving cars with her eyes until they went out of view. “We had to retrain my brain to know what was real and where it was,” she says. “I was scared because I thought that cars that weren’t even close were going to hit me.”           

Because of her lingering vision and balance issues, Fuller was especially apprehensive when they started trying to use revolving doors and escalators. When Fuller finally made it up and down an escalator by herself, she and Naab erupted in unrestrained celebration.

"It was great to work with Mina because she was so excited at each milestone,” says Naab. “Her enthusiasm made me want to push her more."

Fuller’s treatment at RIC also included neurorehabilitation, which focuses on recovering and enhancing sensory, motor, cognitive and behavioral processing. As a result of her brain injury, Fuller had challenges with memory and recall.

“I had to color-code things then because that was the way I was processing information,” she says.

RIC’s specialized neuro-psychologists worked with Fuller on exercises to help her regain her processing skills, enhance her memory and recover her confidence. They also helped educate her family on what to expect from a loved one with a brain injury and how to communicate and manage the recovery process.

“I learned so much at RIC: socialization skills, balance, strength and how to be independent again,” Fuller says.           

Finally, Fuller was referred to RIC’s Personal Training Program where she worked with an exercise physiologist to build on the skills she had learned in therapy and continued doing exercises to improve her balance, strength and endurance. Each day, Fuller would meet with her trainer, Raquel Gonzales, at RIC’s Helen M. Galvin Health and Fitness Center to walk on the treadmill and do exercises to improve her balance and strength, and soon she was running.

Finding Victory

All of her hard work has paid off. In April, Fuller, who could barely stand up on her own just one year earlier, completed a 5K run and took her first vacation with her husband in more than five years.

Fuller is so full of pride and gratitude for the progress she has made, and she has had incredible support from her family who helped her document the journey through photos.

“Mina was very goal-orientated,” comments Naab. “Even though she became nervous at the idea of new goals, she got so excited when she accomplished them.”          

Fuller’s next goal is to return to her job with the Chicago Police Department. To ensure that happens, she follows a strict exercise regimen designed specifically for her by RIC therapists.           

“My life changed the day I walked into RIC,” says Fuller. “They gave me back my quality of life. They gave me back the old Mina.