The Miracle of Volunteers: part 1, Sandy, UT

Many people assume that because Mark is confined to a wheelchair he’s paralyzed—but, he’s not. Mark has a traumatic brain injury and was comatose for three months. He has damage throughout his brain but the most severe damage was to the brainstem, which is the region of the brain that connects the cerebrum with the spinal cord. The brainstem coordinates motor control signals sent from the brain to the body, so, although he has feeling in his legs and feet, he has a hard time controlling them. It’s not that he has forgotten how to walk or talk—he just can’t coordinate the signals sent from the brain to the body.

Years ago, experts believed that changes in the brain were only possible within the first few years of a traumatic brain injury. But research has shown that the brain is capable of altering existing pathways and even creating new ones. Our motivation for Mark’s continued exercises has come from the hope and understanding that his brain will create new pathways or improve the existing pathways so that he can regain control over his body. This has been our driving force for twenty-two years.

When I brought Mark home from the hospital, eight months after the car accident, he only had a few abilities. He could breathe on his own, and could eat finger foods. Using utensils was hard to do because he didn’t have the coordination. His speech was impaired, and swallowing was difficult for him. He didn’t have much control over his arms, hands, and had no control over his legs and feet.

In my article title, If Insurance Denies—Make an Appeal, I explained our battle to keep therapy going after Mark returned home. I made a total of four appeals to the insurance company. In three out of those four appeals, the insurance did continue therapy, but decreased the amount of time with each appeal.

Being in our thirties, we had youthful energy on our side. We hoped for more improvement, and we were determined and not afraid to work for more improvement. Needless to say, we were devastated when the fourth appeal was denied.

We had been at Western Rehab for more than eighteen months—it literally had become our second home. By then we knew every therapist there and appreciated their work. They had a lot of time invested in Mark and truly cared about his progress.

Part of Mark’s physical therapy was done in the pool. Western Rehab had a lounge chair which hoisted Mark in and out of the water. Wearing a life jacket he could do much more in the pool with the buoyancy of the water. Since it took two people to work with Mark, I became the pool partner with the therapist, Tawnya.  Mark could move his arms more freely, kick his feet and could even walk with a walker in the warm water. We became good friends with Tawnya over the many months of working together. When therapy was coming to an end she suggested I find friends to come and help me with Mark’s exercises during their “open plunge time” for just a minimal fee.  Tawnya, assured me that she would be there to oversee the group during this time, so she could continue to encourage and make suggestions of exercises we could work on.

I asked a couple of neighbors to help me with Mark in the pool. The news quickly traveled in our Sandy, UT, neighborhood and before I knew it, we had several neighbors volunteering their time to help. Mark continued to progress as we worked on swimming and walking in the water. We went at least twice a week, and over a four-year time frame, there were more than a dozen people who came to help us. Each one had a specific day in a month and spent more than an hour with us in the warm water, seemingly cheerful and grateful for the experience. Most were men who came to help, but there were a couple of women also. This continued until we moved to our new home in Draper, UT.

We were the luckiest couple I knew to have such wonderful friends to help and support us. We were so grateful that Western Rehab was so close to our Sandy home and allowed us to use the pool and other exercise equipment also. This made it possible for a determined Mark to continue exercising for five years after the accident.

In 1996 we built a new home with my parents which fit our needs better—but it was so difficult to leave our beloved neighbors and friends of sixteen years in Sandy. They had truly helped us get through a very difficult time.

Next Sunday Story: The Miracle of Volunteers: part 2, featuring Draper, UT volunteers

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