Spinal Cord Injury: Martine Maenhout's Story - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Martine Maenhout's Story

Frank and Martine Maenhout

Frank and Martine Maenhout

Martine Maenhout was 56 years old and an active fitness walker and golfer in 2002 when she simply thought she pinched a nerve in her back after waking up one morning with stiffness and pain. When it didn't go away, she saw her family doctor who prescribed over-the-counter pain killers and some basic exercises to help manage the discomfort.

It came as a terrifying shock to Martine when she woke up a few days later and was stricken with weakness and a loss of control over her legs.

"I knew something wasn't right, so I decided I would shower and then go to my physician's office," said Martine. "I fell in the shower and I knew it was probably more serious. As I was coming downstairs to look for my husband, I fell and that's when Frank decided to take me to the emergency room."

It turned out that Martine had a blood clot in her spinal column. She had emergency surgery to remove the clot but was left paralyzed below the waist.

Discovering a New Way to Live

After a brief stay at an acute care hospital, Martine was admitted to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) in December 2002 to begin the inpatient rehabilitation process. She would need to adjust to living her life in a wheelchair.

At RIC, physicians and therapists helped prepare Martine to learn to do the things she used to do like move, bathe and dress in a new way. Martine participated in a physical and occupational therapy program for about six hours a day.

In physical therapy, Martine learned to build strength in her upper body to help support her in learning to transfer from her bed to her wheelchair. She would participate in individual sessions with an RIC physical therapist as well as group sessions that included strengthening exercises and fostered peer communication and support systems.

Martine also participated in daily occupational therapy which taught her how to adjust to daily activities in a wheelchair. Therapists worked with Martine on cooking in RIC's adaptive living apartment, transferring in and out of her wheelchair and dressing herself.

In about four weeks, Martine was prepared with the tools and teachings to live at home. She would continue in RIC's spectrum of care as part of the day rehabilitation program, a unique outpatient therapy program that allows patients to retain an intensive therapy schedule at an RIC facility closer to home, for five days a week to help provide additional therapy and support to help with the transition to living independently with a spinal cord injury.

It was in the day rehabilitation program that Martine really saw the fruits of her hard work and motivation. Despite a lot of remaining pain, Martine regained quite a bit of strength. Therapists worked with Martine to stand with the help of parallel bars for just a few seconds, then she stood for 30 seconds, then a minute, then she began standing unaided by bars or therapists.

"It was hard work and very painful," said Martine. "But I set achievable objectives and each time I achieved a goal, it would motivate me to go further and further."

Finding Answers

In the meantime, physicians were worried about the initial cause of Martine's blood clot and continued to run viral and bacterial tests to determine the cause and to help prevent it from occurring again.

Given that Martine and her husband were world travelers and had visited all seven continents, doctors were concerned about a massive array of possibilities, especially because Martine and Frank had recently returned from a trip to Antarctica, a continent known for thousands of dangerous viruses. Doctors ruled a lot out of serious possibilities, but still had no answers.

Ironically, Martine and Frank's son lived in Belgium and his father-in-law was a renowned immunologist in Germany. After Martine visited him, he determined that Martine's condition was a result of Coxsackie virus, or hand, foot and mouth disease, which she had contracted as a child, but remained dormant for years. When Martine's immune system was down, the virus took over and caused her blood clot in the spinal column.

In their book, "Never Believe the Odds," the Maenhouts describe the medical journey that brought them to Europe and back in search of answers and solutions to her condition.

With the cause unveiled, Martine and Frank were able to move forward more confident that Martine would not be stricken by the disease again and returned to the U.S.

The Benefits of Hard Work and Innovation

"After Martine's immune system was restored by our son's father-in-law, we returned to our home in Naperville," said Frank. "We decided that Martine should continue to participate in therapy to try to improve her strength and so that she wouldn't become depressed."


Martine Maenhout walks with assistance of the Lokomat.

Martine Maenhout walks with assistance
of the Lokomat and RIC researcher T.
George Hornby, Ph.D, PT

In October 2003, when Martine and Frank returned to RIC and met with their physician, they learned about a new research study underway in RIC's Searle Rehabilitation Research Center that involved a state-of-the-art device called the Lokomat®, a large robotic exoskeleton device that helps retrain patients' gait patterns. RIC was the first hospital in the U.S. to invest in a Lokomat. The Institute now has three devices: one used for clinical therapy and two used in ongoing research studies in gait.

Martine and Frank came to RIC's flagship hospital three times a week for outpatient physical therapy where therapists continued to help Martine gain strength in her legs so that she could stand for short periods of time and gain balance to support herself. Martine even began to take small unaided steps between a set of parallel bars.

After her therapy sessions, Martine would participate in robotic gait-training research in the Lokomat for an additional hour.

"It was exhausting," said Martine. "But within three weeks, I was walking slowly on a treadmill, which was thrilling!"

Martine continued to train on the Lokomat in the research study three times a week for about five months and was soon walking on her own with the use of a walker.

"I have worked with very few individuals who have worked as hard as she did," said Donielle Campbell, an RIC physical therapist and part of the Lokomat research study. "The Lokomat served as a tool in Martine's progress and I believe that the training she did outside of the robot on the treadmill and exercises at home were influential on her overall progress."

Sharing Their Journey

Today, Martine and Frank are enjoying life again. Although Martine is walking with a cane, she has jumped back into the active lifestyle she once had. She swims at a pool twice a week and works out with a personal trainer. She has also rejoined her social circles and recently went to the Art Institute of Chicago with a group to view a visiting exhibit.

Martine, a mother of two children and grandchildren, found out how important her family's and friends' support was in her recovery process. Perhaps no one believed in her more than Frank, her husband of nearly 40 years, who provided support and encouragement to his wife and helped her find her inner strength and determination that ultimately helped her regain her independence.

Because Frank and Martine were active healthcare consumers, they sought out the care they needed, even traveling to other continents to get it. They decided to share their story of strength, determination and medical innovation in a book that took two years to write.

Frank and Martine's complete story can be read in "Never Believe the Odds." For every book that is sold, the Maenhouts will contribute $1 to the Sensory Motor Performance Program at the RIC Searle Rehabilitation Research Center.