Spinal Cord Injury: Patient Stories - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Spinal Cord Injury: Patient Stories

RIC Patient (AND doctor) Allison Kessler's Story

Anchorman Rob Johnson featured Dr. Allison Kessler, a former patient and now Resident here at RIC, on the CBS Evening News. This full circle story not only profiles her brave journey, but showcases her passion for helping RIC patients with spinal cord injuries.

NEWSCAST TRANSCRIPT: Imagine being a carefree teenager, smart, athletic, friendly. When, all of a sudden, you're paralyzed from the waist down after a freak skiing accident.

This actually happened to Allison Kessler, but she turned the darkest moment of her life into something bright. And she's now helping injured patients at the same place she received her treatment.

Watch the video and/or read the transcript...


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).

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Jenna Ennesser's Story

Farmer, Age 24, Grand Rapids, MI

RIC patient Jenna EnnesserNewly married, Jenna and her husband were driving home in rural Michigan when their pick-up truck rolled over and she was ejected from the truck, breaking her back and injuring her spinal cord.

The always-active daughter of a farmer was used to hard physical work. She also was known to hunt, fish, show 4-H animals, and take care of animals, so she and her family were stricken by the injury.

“When I woke up from surgery, the doctors told my family that I would never walk or feel below the bellybutton again.” said Jenna. “I’ve been a rebel my whole life, so when someone says I can’t do something, that makes me try harder to prove them wrong.”

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Jorge Alfaro's Story

Loving Life

At the beach, Jorge Alfaro is at complete peace.           

During late summer afternoons, you can find the 39-year-old Chicagoan and self-proclaimed “beach bum” at North Avenue Beach on the shores of Lake Michigan, with pet boxer, J.B. (for Jack Bauer of “24” fame), at his wheelchair’s side. “I love the tranquility and the open space,” said Alfaro. “I think about all I’ve been through and how lucky I am to be where I am today.”           

On a July evening when Alfaro was a young boy, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time while standing on a street corner with friends on Chicago’s west side when he was shot in the back, causing a spinal cord injury.

“When I woke up in the hospital, I couldn’t feel anything,” he recalled. His first instinct was to try to sit up but he couldn’t. Alfaro was paralyzed from the waist down.

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Laetitia Hatem's Story

Student, Age 17, Beirut, Lebanon

RIC patient Laetitia HatemSeventeen-year-old Laetitia always loved horses and riding. She grew up learning how to ride. While on a routine ride with her sister in Beirut, she fell from her horse and suffered a severe spinal cord injury, leaving her completely paralyzed from the neck down.

Devastated by her injury and by a very doubtful early prognosis, Laetitia’s father Georges Hatem, searched the globe for a place that could help his daughter. He found RIC online and was intrigued by RIC’s deep scientific enterprise. He organized a medical flight and flew his daughter more than 10,000 miles, from Beirut to 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."

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Michele Lee's Story

Discovering New Independence, Fulfilling Career Goals

Michele Lee with physical therapist Sally Taylor and Dr. David Chen from her Second Look care team.

Michele Lee with physical therapist Sally Taylor and
Dr. David Chen from her Second Look care team

Michele Lee, 26, is a woman with a good job, an apartment in the city, a talent for painting and an independent, adventurous spirit. She doesn’t let being in a wheelchair keep her from enjoying being young and enjoying all the fruits the city of Chicago has to offer.

In 2003, two days before her graduation from the University of Arizona, Lee was in a car accident on her way to pick up her parents at the airport. Her C5 vertebra was fractured, resulting in, as she puts it matter-of-factly, “the whole paralysis thing.” She was left with no sensory or motor function in her legs and very little function in her arms and hands.

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Sgt. Roosevelt Anderson Jr.'s Story

US Army Special Ops, Age 31, Chicago, IL

RIC patient Sgt Roosevelt Anderson Jr“RJ” – as he is known – knew that he wanted to be a solider his entire life, but his father urged him to go to college first. Two and a half years into an Electrical Engineering degree, the vision for his dream job was clear. He enlisted in the US Army and immediately qualified as a mechanical specialist, managing the electrical systems of helicopters.

In 2012, RJ was invited to join a Special Ops team requiring intense training. It was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do in his life – and he was proud of that accomplishment and excited for his future in the Army. Later that year, he was riding his motorcycle near base when he crashed and broke his back. Due to the severity of the spinal cord injury, he was airlifted to a nearby hospital for surgery. While in recovery, he was told he would never walk again.

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Sgt. Howie Sanborn

US Army Paratrooper, Age 31, Ft. Bragg, NC

RIC patient Howie SanbornHowie Sanborn was always athletic, which is why it was no surprise to anyone when he joined the US Army. He went on to qualify as a member of the Golden Knights, the Army’s elite paratrooper team, serving two years in Iraq.

Howie had participated in multiple marathons and triathlons, and was often seen training with friends around base. One afternoon, he was out on a training ride on his bicycle near base when a driver hit him from behind, ejecting him from his bike, breaking his neck, and injuring his spinal cord. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down and doctors told him he would never walk again.

That was not acceptable to Howie.

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Suy Baselais' Story

Student, Age 29, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

RIC patient Suy BaselaisSuy Baselais was on his way to class at the University of Port-au-Prince when the ground started to rumble. He and several others headed down the stairs when the infamous earthquake shook Haiti, and the building he was in collapsed. He was trapped in the rubble for several hours before someone heard his cries for help and dug him out.

The impact of from the disaster crushed his spine, causing a spinal cord injury. He was unable to move or feel anything from his chest down. Family members moved him into the back of a truck and drove him through the ruins to a makeshift medical aid station a few miles away.

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Martrell Stevens' Story

Age 10, Chicago, IL

RIC patient Martrell StevensMartrell Stevens was just 5 years old when he was hit by a stray bullet while sleeping in his mom’s car on the south side of Chicago. The bullet entered his side and went through his back, puncturing a lung and causing damage to his spinal cord. He was paralyzed and couldn’t move from the waist down. He underwent surgery to remove the bullet and was then transferred to RIC’s Pediatric Rehabilitation Unit.

When he arrived at RIC, he couldn’t walk or sit up by himself, and was healing from the traumatic injuries he sustained.

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