By Alexandra Becker
In January 2019, Susan Slovak’s life as she knew it changed within days after she was stricken with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a condition in which a person’s immune system begins suddenly attacking their nerves, often leading to paralysis. Slovak’s case was both aggressive and severe.
“Everything from the top of my head to the tip of my toes was affected,” Slovak recalled. “Not long after that, I lost my ability to breathe.”
She spent months bedridden and hospitalized as doctors worked to treat her condition. Eventually, she arrived at TIRR Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands for rehabilitation to help her regain as much movement and independence as possible.
“It was the most difficult time of my life,” Slovak said. “I had a tracheostomy tube and could barely use my left hand. I was a mess—physically, emotionally—but I can’t even begin to explain how amazing everyone at TIRR was. Along with my incredibly supportive daughter and the rest of my family, they are the reason I can do what I do today.”
Slovak credits the program at TIRR for the fact that she can now walk with a cane and drive—a level of independence many patients with severe GBS are never able to attain. She also noted, however, that her doctors, therapists and support staff went multiple steps further, and that clinical excellence was just one part of her rehabilitation program—and her astounding recovery.
“At one point I was having a hard time with my modesty, so when my PCA came in to bathe me they would turn their phone on and play George Strait, because I liked that music,” Slovak said. “I had another therapist who walked me through my anxiety every time I was convinced I couldn’t breathe. She just calmed me down and reminded me that small steps are still progress. Those little things really make a difference.”
In September of that year, Slovak turned 60 while she was still inpatient at TIRR. That same month also happened to be TIRR Memorial Hermann’s 60th Anniversary.
“In the midst of their own celebrations, they threw a surprise party for me and all of my therapists were there,” Slovak said. “We had cookies and they decorated the room with sunflowers, and it meant so much to me.”
Although her recovery journey is ongoing, Slovak has made immense strides since her time as an inpatient at TIRR, even walking without her cane on occasion. She is now attending outpatient appointments closer to her home at Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital-Katy, part of the Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Network affiliated with TIRR Memorial Hermann.
“I never did take life for granted, but I certainly look at everything differently now,” Slovak said. “I’m getting my life back and I’m doing really well, and I am so grateful for everyone who has helped me get here.”
This year, TIRR Memorial Hermann ranked No. 2 among the country’s top rehabilitation hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, reflecting its well-established reputation as well as excellence in patient outcomes and quality of care.
“This year’s rankings were especially meaningful to us because quality metrics were taken into consideration, rather than reputation alone,” said Rhonda Abbott, Senior Vice President and CEO of TIRR Memorial Hermann. “They reinforced that our focus on research, education, clinical care, advocacy and innovation has situated us as leaders in rehabilitation.”
Abbott added that Susan Slovak’s story was a beautiful representation of what TIRR Memorial Hermann can do for patients during some of the most challenging seasons of their lives.
“This year for National Rehabilitation Awareness Week, we are focusing on the power of medical rehabilitation and how patients—through appropriate, consistent, and cutting-edge rehabilitation practices—are able to regain mobility and independence after unimaginable injuries or diagnoses. Ms. Slovak’s impressive progress is a shining example of what our program aims to do.”
Abbott said that throughout the TIRR network, Memorial Hermann serves the most complex, acute rehabilitation patients in the country—taking cases other programs may not be equipped to treat.
“We have significant depth of expertise in a variety of conditions, so we can treat many of the most complex cases,” Abbott said. “Whether someone with a spinal cord injury needs advanced respiratory therapy or a family seeks us out for our disorders of consciousness program, we have the expertise and facilities to care for these patients.”
Abbott said she is also proud of how the TIRR teams responded during the COVID-19 pandemic, pivoting roles and revising policies and protocols sometimes daily to ensure the safety of both patients and staff while continuing to serve the community.
“Our Memorial Hermann rehabilitation network has been incredibly nimble to meet the needs of our health system and the larger needs of our community during this pandemic,” Abbott said. “We have been able to safely serve patients who are positive for COVID-19 in rehabilitation and have also shifted beds to help meet needs during COVID-19 surges. Many of our clinicians were also called to serve in the acute care setting to help manage those cases. That really speaks to the uniqueness of our culture and how much we value being here and serving our community no matter the circumstance.”
Abbott added that as soon as TIRR Memorial Hermann identified a need for rehabilitation specific to COVID-19 patients, they designed a new program catered to that population.
“Many patients who had been hospitalized with severe disease were able to be discharged medically, but required rehabilitation—whether it was focused on breathing or mobility—so we wanted to help meet that need with both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation options,” Abbott said. “We put together an innovative treatment program that is unique and outcomes-based because we knew our community needed these kinds of services.”
Similarly, TIRR opened a pediatric rehabilitation unit this past December after identifying a strong need for those services both within the Greater Houston community and nationally.
Moving forward, Abbott said that TIRR Memorial Hermann is continuing its focus on innovation and breakthroughs in rehabilitation—identifying ways in which they can fill gaps but also continue to excel in patient care and outcomes.
“Our role is to constantly evaluate the best interventions for patients in rehabilitation and leverage our four pillars—advocacy, research, excellence in clinical care, and education—to further outcomes,” Abbott said. “The outcomes are really what it is all about for our patients, so we are constantly evaluating ways to improve the care we provide every day. We want to leverage research, create evidence-based practices, disseminate those through education and infuse them into our clinical care so that we can have these amazing outcomes—all the while advocating for our patients and any individual with disabilities.”
Abbott said that focus on advocacy continues to drive TIRR Memorial Hermann’s efforts.
“We want to increase access to our level of care and rehabilitation services and break down barriers so that we can empower and enable members of our community to seek the rehabilitation care they need—be it from COVID-19, a stroke, or a traumatic injury,” Abbott said. “It is all part of Memorial Hermann’s vision to create healthier communities, now and for generations to come.”
Ultimately, Abbott added, that is what it is all about.
“I am so proud of our program and everyone who contributes to it, including our patients like Ms. Slovak,” Abbott said. “That is why we recognize National Rehabilitation Awareness Week—we want to celebrate our patients and how far they have come, and give others the opportunity for that progress as well. Their victories are our victories.”