The Comeback Kids
UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital helps individuals transition from being patients back to living independently
By April Frawley Lacey
Every day, there seemed to be a new symptom. What started out as tingling in Gloria McIntyre’s fingertips and toes rippled through her body in a matter of weeks. Soon, she could not lift anything. Then she could not walk. And it was getting more painful by the day.
“I went to work one day and my boyfriend had to walk me in the building. I could barely move,” she says. “When I got home, I sat on the sofa, and when I went to get up I could not. I was paralyzed.”
At first, no one could figure out what was happening to her. After countless doctor visits, a physician in Ocala finally diagnosed McIntyre with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which the body’s immune system begins to attack itself, targeting the nervous system.
She spent a week in the intensive care unit at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala receiving treatment. After that, she was transferred to UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital where she would spend the next four months of her life. She had to relearn how to do everything, from feeding herself to walking.
“It was very depressing at first, but I am a believer in God and I have faith,” McIntyre says. “There were times I could cry and my mom said ‘It’s OK to cry, but don’t stay there.’ The nurses and therapists coming in and talking to me and praying with me, that kept me motivated.”
She attended intensive physical therapy sessions three times a day and worked with occupational therapists to relearn everyday skills.
“The nature of her diagnosis warrants slow progress, however she was very motivated and a very hard worker from Day 1,” says Amy Kinsey, CTRS, a recreational therapist at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital. “She set goals from the beginning that she had full determination to meet and she did.”
Being able to feed herself was important to McIntyre.
“I did not want anyone to feed me. I wanted to be able to do it on my own. Being independent all my life and then having to rely on someone is tough,” she says. “I cried when I was able to do it. It was tears of joy, me being able to feed myself.”
A month into her rehabilitation, she was able to stand up.
“When I was able to take a step, that was the biggest and most tearful moment. It was painful and took a lot of tries, because you haven’t used your muscles in so long. I told them ‘I will walk out of here,’ and I did. When it was time for me to leave, I walked out of there. I was able to get in my own vehicle and leave.”
A little over a year since she was discharged from UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital, McIntyre is back to work as a manager at Lowe’s in Ocala. She still gets tired sometimes, but says she knows her limitations and when to take it easy. Most importantly, she’s back to having fun with her three kids and two grandchildren.
McIntyre says she has a special place in her heart for all the therapists she worked with — occupational therapist Krista Mackenzie, O.T., physical therapist Mike Chiarelli, P.T., and recreational therapist Kinsey — and all the nurses who took care of her.
“I felt like they were angels,” she says. “They treated me just like family; the love they give is amazing.”
At first, Bill Wong didn’t think the infection in his foot was that bad. At most, he thought, he might lose a toe. But as with many diabetic foot infections, the sore was worse than Wong realized. Surgeons had to amputate his leg below the knee.
“When I came to the Rehab Hospital, my life was upside down,” remembers Wong, a Gainesville resident. “You don’t know what your future is, what is next.”
Wong’s perspective shifted when a man who’d also lost a limb visited his room one day. Called certified peer visitors, these individuals meet with patients in the hospital to encourage them and educate them about life after limb loss, says Andrea Gilbert, OTR/L, an occupational therapist. The visitors are part of Gator Amps, a community group for people dealing with limb loss that UF Health supports.
“He told me what I can expect, that this was not the end of the world,” Wong says. “Having someone come in who had the same problem really helped me. It was very positive and I appreciated it.
“Once you have the surgery, you cannot walk until the wound is healed and you get a prosthetic. (This man) came in and walked normally. I was like ‘Wow, I have a future.’”
While in the hospital, Wong worked with therapists to relearn how to do things without his leg. He also started attending
Gator Amps,. A week and a half later, he left the hospital but continued to work with outpatient providers at the UF Health Rehab Center – Magnolia Parke to get used to walking with a prosthetic limb. He’s become an active member of Gator Amps, too, says Gilbert.
“We aim to link the current patients with people who live and thrive in the community after also experiencing limb loss. Life is different, but it can still be a very good life,” she says. “Meetings are held here for that purpose. We also try to do community events such as rock climbing, boating in Cedar Key, kayaking, and maybe meeting up for a meal together.”
Now, Wong is walking on his own with his prosthetic and is focused on becoming a certified peer visitor like the man who visited him during his hospital stay. He’s also becoming a volunteer at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital. He also wants to raise awareness about the importance of good nutrition and wellness, which is crucial for people with diabetes like him.
“What I am trying to do now is pay it forward,” he says. “Someone helped me when I was there so I am trying to help other people.”
For the longest time, Amy Emery couldn’t remember how to draw a clock. She couldn’t recall what elephant tusks were called or the names of certain vegetables. She forgot things. At first, one of those things was how to walk.
Emery suffered a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, after an accident Jan. 11, 2012. She was on her way from Santa Fe College to Florida Gateway College when the accident occurred.
“I remember getting in the car and that is it,” she says.
UF Health ShandsCair flew her to UF Health Shands Hospital, and after several days there — five of which she spent in a coma — she was sent to UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital.
“The first thing I really remember was struggling with walking,” she says. “I was in a wheelchair. During my second week of inpatient therapy, they were trying to get me walking, and (therapists) Jen and Amy danced with me down the hall.
That was the biggest struggle.”
Two weeks of inpatient physical, occupational, recreational and speech therapy were followed by months of outpatient physical therapy and speech therapy, helping Emery to regain some of the skills she lost because of her TBI.
“My occupational therapist would help me cook things, get me to wash dishes … we played some hide-and-seek, problem-solving games. It was fun,” she says.
Emery also joined an support group for young traumatic brain injury patients run by speech therapist Nicole Ferrier, M.A., CCC-SLP.
“I just really liked meeting people who have had the same experience as me,” says Emery, who had been preparing to transfer to UF at the time of her accident. “A girl who was a UF student told me about getting lost on campus and not freaking out, which was really helpful when I started UF because I got lost a few times.”
In all, Emery’s start at UF was only delayed about six months. She had to make some adjustments to cope with living with a TBI, such as recording classes on her iPad and taking copious notes, but it didn’t set her back from achieving her goals. She served as an ambassador for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences while a student in its Family, Youth and Community Sciences program, giving tours around McCarty Hall. In May, she graduated. Since then, she has spent her time completing prerequisites for the accelerated nursing program she will begin at Florida State University in January.
By next December, she will have two bachelor’s degrees.
“I am so proud of her,” Ferrier says. “She is such a great example of how to reach your goals and live a great life after something so tragic occurs.”
About UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital
How do you transition from being a patient to being an independent person living your own life again? This is the challenge providers at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital help patients solve every day. As North Central Florida’s only inpatient rehabilitation facility, the hospital receives adolescent and adult patients from all across the area and often from out of state. The most common conditions patients face include traumatic and non-traumatic brain injuries, limb loss, spinal cord injuries, stroke and more.
“We have good outcomes for the number of patients who return to community living; we have more going home than going to skilled nursing facilities,” says Rebecca Piazza, M.S., OTR/L, clinical coordinator for the hospital. “All of our therapies focus on equipping our patients with independent living skills to return to home and community life. We provide structured opportunities for patients to get out of the hospital and into the community to see how they do. It’s patient-centered so each case is patient specific.”
During their stay, patients are under the care of a physiatrist — a physician who specializes in rehabilitation — with specialists involved from many disciplines, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, recreational therapy and more.
Patients play a crucial role in establishing their own rehabilitation goals, says recreational therapist Amy Kinsey, CTRS. In addition to relearning to walk or eat, patients often receive tailored therapy to help them regain skills important to them as individuals, such as learning how to play the guitar again or painting. Often, part of therapy involves going into the community, either to eat at a restaurant or shop, to get people used to day-to-day life again and how to manage it.
Meeting these goals is often hard work and the team deploys many tactics to help patients stay motivated. For example, relearning to walk for a patient isn’t as simple as taking steps. Often it starts with learning to sit up again, spending time using muscles that haven’t been used in weeks, and then even more baby steps to standing up and walking.
“In rehab we often say, ‘Together we’re better,’” Piazza says. “Interdisciplinary teamwork from all of our health care professionals and the patient results