Katie Reilly was not expecting her college career to be derailed by multiple surgeries, a stint in a physical therapy rehabilitation center, or by having to learn how to walk again, but a car accident changed all of her plans in February of 2013.
Katie, a MeyerPT™ marketing team member, was critically injured after her boyfriend’s car skidded off a country road and spun out through a guardrail late one winter night. Reilly, a junior at Miami University in Oxford, OH, was sitting in the front passenger seat while her boyfriend Shaun fought to correct his car’s fishtailing swerve after driving over black ice. She was the only one who suffered injuries, remarkably, considering the car was found pinned between trees off the side of the road.
An emergency life flight brought Katie to the University of Cincinnati’s medical center, where she underwent her first of two major surgeries. Katie’s biggest medical concerns were her broken legs (with fractures in both sets of femurs and tibias), as well as a broken pelvis. Her first surgery was to reset her pelvis, where doctors installed a pelvic bar across her front, and the following day both of her legs were repaired and set into tall walking boots.
Katie had been wearing her seatbelt during the drive and was saved from being thrown out of the car upon collision. For months following the accident though, Katie had a deep indent across her stomach where the belt pulled against her body as she was slammed against the side door.
Not only was Katie unable to walk or stand, but the pelvic bar also made her unable to bend over. Her movement was severely limited and for the first time following her accident, Katie found herself frightened by her physical state. As her rehabilitation needs began to set in, Katie’s doctors and family arranged for her installation at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital at Drake, a long-term, full-service rehabilitation center in southern Ohio.
At the Drake, a mixed medical staff cares for and works with patients who have been affected by major movement losses. Among Katie’s floor mates were post-surgical patients, stoke survivors, a young man who had been in a bar fight, as well as a woman with a gunshot wound to the head. Each of these patients had lost the ability to walk, stand, get out of bed, or even go to the bathroom independently. With a staff of trained nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists and doctors, each patient would have to learn old habits, movements that had once been taken for granted and were now the subject of much training and concentration.
Katie’s life became a series of routines: her mornings started with occupational therapy classes, which included learning how to use reacher tools for dressing as well as how to safely get on and off a transfer board. In the afternoon, Katie visited group session training for upper body strength and resistance work. Surrounded by other patients in wheelchairs and leaning on walkers, Katie lifted five-pound dumbbells and marveled how easy working out had been in the past—how lifting five pounds felt like a momentous achievement to her now.
As a physical therapist that is familiar with how quickly muscles atrophy post-surgery, or with how tight and inflexible a patient can be after extended bed rest, it can be difficult to place yourself in the patient’s frame of mind during the first weeks of rehabilitation. Katie admits that it was very difficult to come to terms with her body’s new limitations. Her pelvic bar, a source of much daily pain and care, did not make her transition in rehab easier. Determined to rebuild what she had lost, Katie focused on upper body resistance training and maintained a daily routine that included cardio without lower body activity.
The Drake’s upper gym, housed on the third floor of the center, became Katie’s afternoon and evening source of physical therapy. Challenged by upper body pedal crank machines and cushioned tables, Katie worked closely with her physical therapist to regain enough strength to lift her leg without the extra weight of her boot. Fresh scars on her legs barely hid the titanium rods and screws beneath her skin—but the act of lifting a single leg was another challenge she eventually triumphed over.
Six weeks after her entry, Katie was released from the Drake and continued her rigorous physical therapy routine at Mccullough Hyde Physical Therapy. She had officially submitted a medical withdraw from school and was focused on integrating herself in their rehabilitation program. Her pelvic bar remained fastened across her lap for almost eight weeks following her release from the Drake, and she was wheelchair-bound until the removal surgery was complete. Following the procedure, a nurse handed Katie a pair of crutches. It was time for her to learn how to walk again.
Progress came slowly. In your role as a coach and cheerleader, every bit of patient progress is worth celebrating. For Katie, it was hard to maintain the same enthusiasm. Even though she wasn’t in class, friends on campus preparing for senior year surrounded her. Her own boyfriend was graduating and searching for employment. Katie felt that her life had hit a standstill, and without the ability to walk, she felt farther behind.
Every new step brought Katie closer to a sense of normalcy. Her physical therapy training arsenal was well-developed by the Mccullough Hyde staff: resistance bands, looped bands, free weights, balance discs, BOSU balance trainers and foam rollers became the tools she turned to for strength training and muscle recovery. Assisted by pool workouts at the training center, Katie stimulated walking against artificial currents, lunging, squatting and feeling stronger with each step underwater.
Balance exercises proved to be the most difficult, as Katie and her therapists worked to even out the strength distribution between her two legs. Because Katie felt the most impact on her right side—which had hit the car door first—she found her muscles on the right side in a worse state than the left. During her time using transfer boards, Katie was unable to place any weight on her right side or leg. Now, weight bearing exercises were forcing Katie to overcome the weaknesses inactivity had instilled in her right leg.
But Katie improved. She left for Columbus for the summer break, walking again. She kept up with her physical therapy routines and appointments, even in the new city. With guidance and training, she was able to overcome her car accident less than a year after emergency responders loaded her unresponsive body into a helicopter.
Physical therapy had transformed Katie’s life in both the obvious and unsuspected ways. Her injury and process of learning to move again had permanently shaped her outlook on her body and what it means to move. She says now that she’s healthier, more in tune with herself than before. With so many months of intense focus on her progress, Katie finds that it’s impossible not to notice when she hasn’t stretched enough.
Joining the MeyerPT team has kept her in tune with her movement. Surrounded by health and wellness products and customer needs, Katie is all too aware of how important the smallest tools are to a physical therapist and patient. She finds that her past experience has enabled her to deeply understand the physical therapy market, in part because of how much time she’s spent with therapists and in rehabilitation clinics. Now living without limitations, Katie is excited to connect with her work in a way that makes her feel as if she’s giving back to the same community of therapists who supported her during her struggle to reclaim movement.