Progressive myelopathy. Cauda Equina Syndrome. Thoracic disk herniation. Peripheral polyneuropathy.
You name it – Phyllis Kirksey seemed to have everything – except the ability to move her legs.
“It really wasn’t pain – it was inability to do anything,” she recalls. “Your mind tells you to lift your leg and go up the stairs, but it won’t do it. It was just like I weighed 400 pounds. I just couldn’t move.”
Nobody knows what caused this latest in a long history of back problems, but it set the retired pharmacist on a path to her sixth surgery followed by two weeks of rehabilitation as a spinal cord injury patient at Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center.
It happened soon after returning from her son’s wedding that Kirksey, wife of Dr. Jim Kirksey, an ER physician at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, suddenly found herself unable to climb any of the stairs in their Friendsville tri-level home.
Soon, Dr. Merrill White, an orthopedic surgeon at Parkwest Medical Center, was laying out her options: Undergo an extensive 12-hour multi-level spinal decompression and reconstruction or spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
“Dr. White shoots straight from the hip,” said Mrs. Kirksey. “He said, ‘You’ve got a 50 percent chance of getting better, a 10 percent chance of getting worse and a 40 percent chance of being just like you are. But being like you are is better than what you will be if you don’t have surgery because you will continue to get worse.’ It wasn’t a pretty picture to paint. So, I gambled on 50 percent and I won.”
Of course, it wasn’t an easy victory.
After the July 3 surgery by Dr. White and cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Brent Grishkin, Mrs. Kirksey recovered at Parkwest for a week. “I was the Pillow Lady,” she said with a laugh. “I had a pillow here, a pillow in front, a pillow in back, pillow between my knees. I was pillowed up – and don’t move me!’”
But White had other plans. The next day, he had Mrs. Kirksey to stand on her own two feet. Walking, however, would take awhile longer.
Discharged from Parkwest a week after surgery, she was sent to Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center where she was immediately impressed by the staff.
“When I was first admitted, everyone came in and introduced themselves and explained their job position and if there was anything I needed related to their expertise, just let them know,” she said. “Everybody had a smile on their face. It was a very uplifting, encouraging atmosphere.
“Of course, Day One they are going to get you to your feet. They let you know from the very beginning that, ‘You’re not here to be waited on!’” she said with a laugh. “That was the whole atmosphere. They present you with challenges, then you go in and you do it, and you don’t think you will be able to accomplish, but by golly, after a few days, I was doing exactly what they said. Everybody was very encouraging.”
By the end of the first of two weeks at PNRC, she was walking the full length of an exercise bar and climbing steps, well on her way to meeting her personal goal of caring for herself and getting in and out of her multi-level home.
She was also learning to maneuver her wheelchair, taking part in an obstacle course throughout different floors of Fort Sanders Regional. “I look at people in wheelchairs in the mall or wherever now in a whole different perspective,” she says. “I know what they are going through because I’ve been there even if was for a short period.”
Perhaps, just as important, were the lessons learned in group sessions with new-found friends in similar situations. “There was camaraderie there,” she said. “I learned everyone’s name. It was interesting to see the change each other went through. In the beginning, some were real withdrawn and focused on their own pain, but by the end of two weeks, they were more concerned about how others were feeling. You really got to know one another.
“It was not just a hospital where you are treated as an individual but you made friends, made friends for life,” she added. “And you take your own problems in a new perspective. OK, I’ve got this condition and I’m having trouble walking, but you know what? I didn’t really have a choice in the surgery because, if I hadn’t had the surgery, I would have been in a wheelchair for life. That was my option, and I didn’t want that. So you deal…thank God there was an alternative!”
Today, Mrs. Kirksey moves about her home with the aid of a cane and can climb any flight of stairs in her home. If she is going a long-distance, she uses a walker.
But the wheelchair she took home from Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center sits at a dining table, unused except by a son-in-law who says it’s comfortable to his own bad back.
The surgeons, rehabilitation physicians or physiatrists, therapists and nurses have done their part. The rest, she says, is up to her.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ But if you really, really search your heart and take in these experiences and use them for a better good, then so be it. It is what it is. I am just thankful that I can do what I can do.”
“I would not wish anybody to go through what any of us at Pat Neal had to go through,” she added. “But if life deals you an unfortunate circumstance where you are in that position, then you couldn’t go to a better place for rehab. They have the ability to reach any type person. They were wonderful. They were great in every way.”