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Arise and Walk

Posted on February 10, 2016

On Nov. 5, 2011, Rachel was in a car wreck that resulted in diffused axonal injury, a traumatic brain injury that left her bedridden and barely able to communicate. Rachel was hospitalized for 109 days and in a coma for 30.PNRC Patient Counts Her Blessing

Standing straight and tall, Rachel Ruppe, 25, places her hand on her hip and smiles for the camera. Silver hoop earrings complement her capris leggings and a pink knit top.

“Blue is my favorite color,” the Oakdale native says as she chats between pictures at Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, “but pink is bright.”

A casual observer probably wouldn’t see anything special about this moment, because young women dress up and pose for pictures all the time. But for Rachel, it might as well be a picture taken at the peak of Mt. Everest. Simple things like getting dressed, wearing earrings, and even standing are tremendous accomplishments for a person who was expected to spend the rest of her life in bed.

“See, stuff we do not think about, just stuff that God made our bodies to know how to do, I had to relearn,” Rachel says. “I had to learn how to talk, eat, shower, use the bathroom…I had to learn all that over, again.”

On Nov. 5, 2011, Rachel was in a car wreck that resulted in diffused axonal injury, a traumatic brain injury that left her bedridden and barely able to communicate. Rachel was hospitalized for 109 days and in a coma for 30.

Rachel remembers doctors and therapists in the hospital instructing her to try things like raising her eyebrows or sticking out her tongue. Her mind understood the commands, but her body couldn’t carry them out. To make matters worse, hardly anyone could understand the things she was trying to say.

Rachel was trapped inside her own body. The brain injury was so severe that her parents were encouraged to permanently place her in a nursing home.

Jennifer Ruppe’s eyes fill with tears as she remembers being offered the choice of institutionalizing her daughter. “There was no choice to make,” Jennifer says with emotion and conviction, “because she was so young, and so full of life.”

The distraught mother and father decided that no matter what kind of life God wanted Rachel to have, they would personally help her make the most of that life at home. After two hospital stays, Rachel was transferred to Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, barely able to move, hands still drawn up to her chest, and with speech still difficult to understand.

A physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech therapist worked intensively with Rachel until she was able to sit in a wheelchair, and ride home in a specially equipped van. It was a victory for the family, and Rachel’s parents and sister set about the task of meeting her needs, day-to-day and moment-to-moment.

But Rachel wasn’t finished, yet. “I felt like if the Lord left me here, I should fight to get better,” she says.

The Ruppes chose to take Rachel back to Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center for outpatient therapy three times a week. It was a long drive from Morgan County, and there were options closer to home, but Rachel’s mother explains that they wanted the level of care to match the severity of Rachel’s brain injury.

“We wanted her to come here because they’re so good,” Jennifer Ruppe states very simply. She had also seen firsthand the way PNRC staff had treated her daughter with care and respect.

“It’s not just a job to them,” Jennifer says. “They really care about Rachel and her progress, and they have compassion.”    

“We’ve worked on everything from rolling, to sitting, to getting in and out of the chair, to walking on stairs,” says physical therapist Patsy Cannon. “We started out with a platform walker, then a cane, a rollator, and now she can stand without anything.”

A critical part of Rachel’s rehabilitation has involved home exercises, some of which are on a Wii game system. “The games work on her ability to use her hands, her hand-eye coordination, her ability to focus, her balance, and movement strategies” Cannon says.

Clinical specialist in speech therapy Mary Margaret Preston says Rachel suffers from dysarthria, a motor speech disorder that decreases intelligible speech. Preston recommended a surgical procedure that helped Rachel’s speech improve, but there were still residual speech problems present.

“We started working at the word level, trying to produce words intelligibly by articulating the sounds accurately,” Preston explains. From there, they worked on speech in increasing levels of difficulty, from producing phrases, to full sentences, to paragraphs, and then conversational speech. “It’s a sequence we practice to eventually be able to speak intelligibly in conversations with all of those we encounter in our home and community.”

PNRC therapists continue to work with Rachel, helping her become stronger and more self-sufficient. Her next goal is to live independently, and she believes it’s a goal within reach.

“I’ve improved tremendously,” Rachel says. “Everyone here has treated me wonderfully.”

Today Rachel can walk with some assistance, and has gone from being nearly unable to communicate to being a keynote speaker for churches, schools, and community groups. Her speech isn’t perfect, but she has no trouble communicating what’s on her mind.

“You’re not going to get anywhere if you just sit there and feel sorry for yourself,” Rachel says adamantly. “Bad things happen to people, but you have to keep going, and have faith.”

Rachel knows what it means to keep going. Instead of giving up on her goal of graduating from college, she completed 10 online courses in four years to graduate from MTSU on Dec. 12, 2015. She walked across the stage to personally accept her diploma, and now holds a Bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in Writing.

Saying she’s thankful for her parents, and that she could do nothing without the Lord, Rachel counts her blessings these days, instead of her limitations. That includes the tremendous outpouring of support from her community, the love of family and friends, the grace of God, and the highly skilled therapists at PNRC.