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Published on January 07, 2019

Bill Hittle and Dr Adil Shaikh

From Broken Neck to Walking: Rehab Care Makes the Difference

Most people would not be cracking jokes and laughing just a few weeks after fracturing the vertebrae in their neck.

Bill Hittle isn’t most people though.

He’s a hard-working Nebraskan who overcame an ATV-rollover accident that nearly took his life and mobility.

He worked hard, but credits the team that spent weeks in the rehabilitation center at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center for helping him back from an injury that could have left him without movement and feeling in his hands and feet.

“Stupidity mostly,” is what he says when asked how he ended up injured. “I was flat on my back after that four-wheeler lost traction and tipped over. But it led me to the best hospital stay I have ever had. No one – not a single person, the entire time – treated me like anything less than family. They wanted to care for me, and it’s not easy. But I credit them for getting me back to moving around like I am now.”

A High Spot to Climb

Hittle hails from Homer, Neb., not far from the Missouri River, and had his accident while exploring an ATV recreational course near Springfield, S.D. He and a friend were looking at a hill, considering it as too steep to climb.

“But I decided to take a run at it,” he said. “As I reached the top, there were deep ruts, and I lost traction. I ended up at the bottom, head facing downhill when it flipped and rolled over on me.”

Thankfully, the owners of the site as well as several four-wheeler enthusiasts were trained in emergency medicine, and help was nearby. Those who first responded realized it was serious. Vertebrae fractures in Hittle’s neck led to a Careflight trip to Avera McKennan.

“My neurosurgeon looked at my images and said he could treat it,” said Hittle. Wissam Asfahani, MD, Avera Medical Group Neurosurgery completed the successful surgery. “He put the broken bone into a cage and fused the vertebrae, and he said it would be stiff, but it would regrow. I said that sounds better than the alternative.”

After his surgery, Hittle spent time in the intensive care unit. As he began to recover, he regained feeling in his hands and legs. But there was some numbness. “But I told them I could handle that – it was just amazing I could feel my fingers again,” he said.

New Home for Awhile

Hittle spent about two weeks with the team at Avera Medical Group Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation on the Avera McKennan campus. Adil Shaikh, MD, Hittle’s said he had significant weakness at the beginning, especially in his hands.

“He arrived unable to do any activities of daily living without help – dressing, eating and washing his face. He needed maximum assistance,” said Shaikh. “His case showed his strong work ethic, and with the proper rehab plan of care, he went from requiring maximum assistance to performing daily life functions – and going home safely without much assistance after about 15 days with us.”

Hittle said he appreciated his large, private room and its private bathroom, along with the easy-to-use roll-in shower and heated floor. Since he would be relearning many life activities, the unit’s restaurant booth, curb ramp and tub rooms gave him places to practice. The rehab unit even features a mock-up of an automobile, so he could work on entering and exiting the vehicle.

From the start, Hittle was encouraged to work toward his recovery goals. Each therapist, nurse and caretaker was always ready to help, but also encouraging him to strive for more activity.

“That first day, I tried to adjust the bed with the buttons, and my therapist made me use my muscles instead,” he said. “She said I wouldn’t have that electric bed at home, and that was how we got started. Every day, when we would work on something, they would always spell out the reasons why we were doing it. That helped me to work harder.”

A wide range of technology, all focused on Hittle regaining function, we put to use during his stay. He used Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bikes that work both lower and upper limbs, and those devices, along with many others, helped him regain function. Neurosensory integrator devices also were part of his personally tailored care.

Throughout the process, a rehab-certified physician can assess results and continue tailoring the care.

“We use a model that is patient-centered, team-based and multifaceted. It’s the most effective approach,” Shaikh said. “We can apply all of our in-house expertise to help people like Bill achieve the best possible outcome. They can have excellent results because we’re combining the patient’s hard work with our team’s proficiency.”

Hittle said he had been in hospitals before, but nothing really came close to the whole-person approach he experienced over his weeks in Sioux Falls.

“Everyone was knowledgeable, but more than that was this overall sense of niceness, and not just a focus on my physical well-being. People would just talk to me as a person,” he said. “It was an amazing hospital stay, and this place gave my life back to me.”

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