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Published on July 14, 2020

Kelly Thurman at rehab center

Immobile and Overwhelmed: Why a Rehabilitation Center Was the Answer

A year ago, I was in a hospital bed staring at a blank TV screen, wondering how I was going to get through the next three months.

In a biking accident, I shattered my tibial plateau – the tippy top of the tibia that connects to the knee – and I couldn’t put any weight on my leg.

Overwhelmed with Weeks of Immobility

I also needed surgery to repair it but my Avera Orthopedics surgeon needed to wait until the swelling subsided. For the next two weeks I had what’s called an external fixator. That’s a metal brace on the outside of my leg that connected to my tibia and fibula with screws. It kept everything in place, but stretched out enough that it wouldn’t start healing while my swelling went down. It made moving even less fun.

I felt overwhelmed and defeated. My immediate concern was going to the bathroom just three feet away. But the bigger questions were even more overwhelming. How was I going to get in my house? Get up the stairs? Take a shower? Manage my family and work?

Help Through Rehab

When my hospital team started asking these questions, too, I didn’t have great answers. They asked if I was ready to go home, and the simple answer was no. Even though I wanted the comfort of home, I was exhausted.

They suggested inpatient rehabilitation to learn how to maneuver. This is for people with serious injuries or illnesses that impact mobility, speech or independence. In my case it was due to traumatic injury. People also visit the center for strokes, spinal injuries or brain injuries.

I was sold.

Asking the Hard Questions

The Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center Inpatient Rehabilitation is on the hospital campus, on the fifth floor of the Prairie Center. It was easy to get to and meant I could stay in touch with my other doctors. My endocrinology and orthopedic teams both checked in with me while I was there.

But I also had an entire team, led by Thomas Ripperda, MD, focused on helping me learn how to maneuver life. Their plan of action included learning basic skills, and orthopedic physical therapy. Speech therapy is also available if necessary.

Every day I had a schedule. We worked through my challenges during occupational and physical therapy.

They asked me a lot of questions:

  • How many steps are there to get into your house?
  • How many steps are inside of your house?
  • What kind of shower do you have? Does it have a bathtub?
  • Do you have safety equipment or can you add it?
  • How far away is your bedroom?
  • How many railings are on your stairs?
  • Is the railing on the left side or right side?
  • What kind of car do you have?
  • Will you have help cooking?
  • How big is your kitchen?

Finding Answers

My anxiety started to melt away as we worked through these questions.

  • I got up and down the seven stairs it would take me to get to my room.
  • I practiced with one railing so I could get into the house.
  • I practiced getting in and out of the car roughly the height of mine.
  • I practiced going up and down a curb and a ramp.
  • I even practiced making an egg – it was the hardest I’ve ever worked for one egg in my life.
  • I learned how to put on socks and shoes.
  • I practiced getting in and out of the bathtub.
  • I worked on my hand dexterity and arm strength to help me use a walker.
  • I did stretches and physical therapy to keep both legs as strong as possible with my limitations.
patient rehab room

The rooms at the rehab center are roomy, so you have space to maneuver with a wheelchair or walker. They also have nice natural sunlight. Coming back to a bright and cheery room after my therapy helped brighten my spirits.

common room

A common room offered a great place to eat with family or other patients or to just sit and chat during the day. Meals were prepared on site.

patient practices using walker

A patient practices using a walker with his team. The center is a big square with the therapy room in the middle. I spent a lot of time walking these halls with my physical therapist to build up my stamina using a walker. A therapist is always nearby to help if needed and a strap is around the patient’s waist for this reason.

therapy room

The therapy room has everything you would ever need to work on strength, balance or life skills. It includes stairs of varying height. I had a lot of anxiety with stairs since I couldn’t bend or put any weight on my leg. Conquering this anxiety was one of my main goals!

practice car in therapy room

The therapy room also includes a practice car. This car can be moved up or down to simulate different types of vehicles. Doing things like this helped me think through with my physical therapist how to get in and out of the car without bending my leg. The step behind the car is where I practiced my curb skills, which involved me hopping up backwards using my walker for support. I was glad I got to practice it with a therapist nearby!

patient baking while using walker

A patient works at baking while using a walker in the practice kitchen. This is where I made my egg. These types of exercises provide context for how hard things will be so you can think about how to make them doable ­– like making sure a chair or stool is nearby in case you have to sit by the stove.

patient practices shopping

A patient practices shopping in the practice market. I didn’t practice in this area since I had someone to help with the shopping (thanks husband!). But this is another area where your team will help you think through challenges you may come across during everyday life – like maneuvering aisles in a wheelchair.

team meeting

Your team will include many people who are all focused on helping you meet your goals. You will have weekly meetings with this team to discuss progress, challenges and accomplishments. My stay was less than a week so my weekly meeting was also an exit meeting. We discussed what goals were met and laid out a plan for me to continue at home. It was also a time to discuss any lingering concerns or questions before heading out on my own.

Going Home with (More) Confidence

At the end of my four-day stay I met with my team and they told me I was ready to go home. They gave me a plan of action including physical and occupational therapy I could continue to do on my own. They included my husband so he knew how he could help.

Nothing over those next weeks was easy. But it felt doable since I practiced so many possible challenges. It built my confidence so I knew I could figure things out as they came up.

Traumatic injuries are never planned. If your team ever recommends it, know that inpatient rehabilitation can help.

Kelly Thurman is a writer/editor with Avera Marketing

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