Determined to sail again after a spinal cord injury

By: Jade Waddy

For months, Tom White was in Houston dreaming of getting back out on the water and going sailing in his hometown of Corpus Christi. It’s one of things he loves most in life. But first, he had to work hard to recover from an incomplete spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed below the waist.

Two years ago, White had a nerve stimulator implanted in his back to address chronic back pain. Over time, the stimulator battery pack had migrated and was pressing on a nerve.

“It became very painful, so doctors in Corpus went to replace the battery pack in March,” White said. “When I woke up from the surgery, I was unable to move my legs.” In addition to being unable to move his legs, the operation left White’s bowel and bladder impacted.

Shortly after his surgery, White was admitted to TIRR Memorial Hermann’s Spinal Cord Injury Program for Rehabilitation. When he arrived, he was tested for COVID-19. The test came back positive.

“We’re unsure of where he might have contracted the virus,” said Paula, Tom’s wife of 25 years. White was quickly transferred to the COVID-19 unit at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center where he would spend 8 weeks. “I never had any respiratory symptoms of the virus and I felt fine,” said White.

Despite not experiencing any severe symptoms, White continued to test positive for the virus and was unable to return to TIRR Memorial Hermann’s Texas Medical Center campus. However, leaders at TIRR had established a rehab unit at TIRR Memorial Hermann Greater Heights for patients who tested positive for COVID-19 in order to continue receiving rehabilitation care.

“I was initially concerned that I could not return to the Medical Center campus,” White said.  “But everyone at TIRR assured us that I would receive the same level of care at the Greater Heights location and looking back I am very happy we decided to move forward with the change.”

While White received physical therapy and occupational therapy services as normal, there were some modifications to the program, such as having to stay in his room. Two days after arriving to Greater Heights, White tested negative for the virus and was able to participate in more traditional rehab activities, including treatment in the main therapy gym.

After two weeks of working with therapists, White’s condition improved by what Paula describes as ‘leaps and bounds.’

“When Tom arrived he had very little trunk control and required some assistance from his therapy team and wife to do daily activities,” said Bijal Patel, PT, Tom’s physical therapist.

Patel used electric stimulation combined with activities such as cycling and sit-to-stand activities to help with motor recovery in Tom’s lower extremity muscles. In addition, strengthening his upper extremity muscles and core was important in his therapy journey.

“A strong core is key in many movements we each do and for Tom it was beneficial to work on this part of the body to help him carry out activities of daily living such as getting in and out of the bed, sitting and standing and transferring himself from the bed to his wheelchair,” Patel added.

When it was time for White to leave TIRR, he expressed tremendous gratitude to all of his care team. “The therapists and team were really important in my journey of improving from where I started,” White said. “Most importantly I knew I had to have a positive attitude throughout this entire chapter.”

Now back home in Corpus Christi, White continues to work hard in outpatient physical therapy three times a week for at least the next six months. He’s now able to walk short distances with a walker and looks forward to walking back on his boat and sailing in clear blue waters.

For more information on rehabilitation services offered at TIRR Memorial Hermann, visit tirr.memorialhermann.org or call 1 (800) 44-REHAB (73422).

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