Spinal Cord Injury: Charles Kay's Story - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Charles Kay's Story

Charles Kay, spinal cord injury patient

Charles Kay's rehabilitation journey began in 1993. Kay, then an operations manager at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, received a traumatic spinal cord injury when he jumped into a friend's swimming pool.

He and his fiancée were enjoying a day-off at a friend's house when Kay, attempting to jump in the pool, slipped, fell awkwardly on his head and broke his neck before sinking to the bottom.

"I found myself at the bottom of the pool and I couldn't move. I was drowning and began having an out of body experience. At that point, I was rescued and regained consciousness," he said.

Soon after, Kay learned that he injured his C4 and C5 vertebrae and spinal cord resulting in tetraplegia, or paralysis in the majority of his body. He spent weeks in traction at an acute care hospital and faced countless medical setbacks before a nurse suggested he consider the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC).

"My nurse said she heard that RIC was doing good things for patients with spinal cord injury," said Kay, "I wanted to give it a try. When I was discharged from the hospital, I couldn't move at all. I had to be transferred in and out of my chair and I couldn't feed or bathe myself. I was paralyzed from the shoulders down and began to wonder how I was going to live the rest of my life. It was shocking."

My "guardian angel" at RIC gave me hope

Kay recalls the day he met his first "guardian angel," RIC nurse and care manager Paula Thomas, as he was first wheeled onto the 7th floor at RIC.

"She was the first person I saw at RIC. I looked at her and I knew this woman was going to help me," he said, "And she turned out to be my nurse and has been an important supporter and friend ever since."

"Chuck had a great attitude from the very beginning and had a great sense of humor no matter what challenge he faced," said Paula Thomas, former nurse and current care manager at RIC.

Kay spent four months as an inpatient at RIC working with physical therapists to try to regain movement and strength. He worked with speech language pathologists to make sure his breathing and swallowing were adequate and was fitted for a sip and puff wheelchair, which occupational therapists worked with him on controlling.

"RIC customized my wheelchair and gave me the mobility I desired"

"As my release date got closer, I began to regain movement in my right arm-not much-but my physical therapists helped me focus on the movement to strengthen it and gain control," he said. "I stayed for two more weeks and made enough progress to be able to use a motorized wheelchair with a joystick."

The RIC Wheelchair Seating & Positioning Center customized a chair for Kay to fit his specific needs. Having a customized seating solution is essential for people who use wheelchairs; a properly adjusted wheelchair provides maximum comfort and also supports maximum mobility and independence.

The smallest movements are huge victories for us (spinal cord injury patients)," Kay said, "Being able to regain movement, even though it was small, was a huge step for me. In these small ways, RIC not only gave me the hope, but the tools for the future rehabilitation."

"Chuck has always made sure that he is very knowledgeable regarding his personal care needs. He is able to instruct caregivers on how best to meet his needs," said Thomas. "These qualities have made for successful re-entry into the community and also allowed Chuck to avoid common physical complications often associated with this level of spinal cord injury."

After being discharged, Kay utilized a number of rehabilitation and support services to maintain and improve upon the gains he made during his inpatient stay at RIC.

To support his overall wellness, he began exercising at the Helen M. Galvin Health and Fitness Center at RIC, a 4,000 square-foot accessible fitness center created specifically for people with physical disabilities.

"I'd go to the fitness center two to three times a week for a few hours a day," said Kay. "I wanted to keep my body in shape and I had hoped that the activity would wake up more movements."

Kay also utilized the access to research through RIC's Center for Pain Studies, where he participated in trials on shoulder pain for tetraplegic patients.

Thanks to his hard work and the therapy he received through RIC's outpatient services, Chuck continued to improve. He gained even more control and range of motion in his arms and strength in his legs. In fact, Kay was eventually able to stand unassisted for 30 seconds.

"RIC's Second Look Program provided me a chance to improve further"

Today, he still relies on the people and services of RIC to help him achieve his goals. Kay received a letter from RIC about the Second Look Program, a rehabilitation management program designed so that people with spinal cord injuries can return, after discharge, at any point in their life to return for a "tune-up." The program is designed to help maintain patients' health and provide any additional therapy or treatments available to help them achieve their goals after spinal cord injury.

"I cried when I opened that letter," said Kay. "It's exactly what we (people with spinal cord injury) need – a chance to better ourselves and try to identify more ways to improve how we do things and new ways to improve things."

"The Second Look Program allows patients to take advantage of the programs and services at RIC that they may not have had the chance or the desire to participate in during their initial admission," said Thomas.

"With positive coping skills, these patients usually begin to focus on community living issues such as return to work, return to school and recreational activity goals," she continued. "And patients can also return to get a concentrated focus on physical recovery and provide therapy modalities that will help to increase functional independence."

While at RIC for the Second Look Program, Kay was fitted with hand splints to help promote functional positioning in his hands. This allowed him to do things like use a phone and change the channel on his TV with greater ease. He tried new methods of shifting in bed and was able to learn about new tools and technology that help everyday life activities like eating and reading a little easier.

Kay also worked with specialists in the Assistive Technology Center to develop new assistive devices designed to help him with daily activities. Additionally, he learned some computer skills and plans to join one of the many free computer classes RIC offers to help train patients in the newest computer technologies.

"My biggest goal in the program was to work on a standing transfer where I could use my legs to stand and be able to move from the bed to my chair," said Kay. "I was able to train on the Lokomat® six times and it has really helped me build more strength and balance in my legs. I am continuing this therapy on an outpatient basis so I can achieve my goal -- I know I can do it!"

The Lokomat® is a robot gait-trainer that provides assisted walking therapy. This device is often used to help patients who have walking impairments re-learn how to walk.

"Coming to the 7th floor Spinal Cord Injury Program is like coming home," he said. "It's really a unique place and I don't know where I'd be without it, or without the people here. They have helped me realize independence and that's the real victory as far as I'm concerned."