November 18, 2013

Never say never

A young woman’s journey back to independence

CALHOUN — Stephanie Bruce was literally at death’s door.

On hospice and confined to a wheelchair, the 45-year-old Shannon native weighed only 60 pounds and received her nutrition from a feeding tube. But her will to live was miraculously restored by three little words.

“The first day I arrived to start her physical therapy, Stephanie told me that she had been evaluated and nobody could help her,” says Nick Griffin, a physical therapist with Gordon Home Care. “I just looked at her and said, ‘Never say never.’”

Those words ultimately gave Shannon her life back.

From a very early age, Stephanie suffered from weakness in her left arm. The pain was constant and often her arm would turn purple and feel cold to the touch. Her doctors were at first baffled. But at the age of 15, she was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a condition where the nerves or blood vessels just below the neck are compressed, or squeezed.

Treatment for this condition was to remove Stephanie’s top left rib to release the pressure. However, her pain and symptoms continued following the surgery. Years passed and she was forced to leave her job at Belk’s when her symptoms worsened and spread to her left leg.

“Doctors thought it was scar tissue from the earlier surgery that was causing it to spread to my leg,” Stephanie explains. “So I had that removed and had nerve blocks, but nothing worked.”

Ultimately, in 1993, Stephanie was sent to The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. After two weeks of testing, she was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), a chronic neurological syndrome characterized by severe burning pain, pathological changes in bone and skin, tissue swelling, and other symptoms, including problems with the stomach and other organs.

“It was good to finally know what was wrong with me,” Stephanie says. “Some people thought I was lying about the pain.”

Stephanie returned home and her condition continued to decline. In addition to the constant pain and negative reactions to medication, she was unable to care for her own basic needs.  

“I had already made my own funeral arrangements,” Stephanie admits. “I didn’t think I could go on.”

Following one of many hospitalizations for malnutrition and other issues, she was released with orders for home healthcare. She was referred to Gordon Home Care, a service of Gordon Hospital.

“When I first started visiting her, I basically just treated her symptoms and wrapped her legs for her,” says Cindy Leatherwood, an RN with Gordon Home Care. “For some people with RSD, the neuropathy can cause lesions to form on the extremities so I wrapped Stephanie’s legs with medicated wraps to help heal the lesions.”

During one of her first visits, Cindy learned that Stephanie was sleeping in her wheelchair instead of her bed.

“She was afraid to go to bed because she was afraid she would not be able to get up,” Cindy explains. “As a result, she started getting pressure point wounds as well.”

Home Health Aide Amy Sisson also visited Stephanie to monitor her condition and help her with basic needs like bathing.

“You should have seen her face when I told her that I was putting her in the shower,” Amy says. “She was like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’”

It was to be Stephanie’s first “real” shower for as long as she could remember.

“I just can’t describe it,” Stephanie said. “I know I looked like an idiot playing in that water!”

Soon afterwards, Nick began visiting to start her physical therapy program.

“In addition to her RSD, she also suffers from Dystonia in her right arm and leg,” Nick explains. “This is a neurological movement disorder, in which sustained muscle contractions cause twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures.”

Ironically, Nick also suffers from a form of this disorder, so he knew just what to do to help Stephanie.

“When we first started, she asked me why we weren’t starting with stretching exercises,” Nick remembers. “I just grinned and asked her, ‘how’s that been working for you, Dr. Phil?’”

Previously, Stephanie had endured numerous, extremely painful therapy sessions where her extremities were stretched or bound together to achieve the desired positions. She was expecting that torture again.

“Instead of stretching, which obviously does not work for this condition, I instructed her to do some bed exercises where she would straighten out her joints,” Nick says. “Then we started working on getting her out of her chair.”

Stephanie was thrilled with the ‘baby steps’ she began to make.

“Nick knew just what to do,” Stephanie says. “I’m doing things now that I never dreamed I would do again.”

After only four months of therapy, Stephanie could walk with the aid of a walker and became completely independent of her own care.

“She even cleans her own home now,” Cindy adds. “She recently called Nick and asked him to show her how she could get into the floor to clean the corners of the walls.”

While she has been discharged from the physical therapy portion of her home healthcare program, Nick promises to always be there for her.

“Like your family doctor or dentist,” Nick says, “if you ever need a physical therapist, you have one for life.”

Stephanie says she enjoyed her visits from Cindy and Amy, who continue to monitor her progress.

“Amy has been her biggest advocate,” Cindy says, “and it all started with that shower.”

Today, when she’s not cleaning her home or snuggling with Lucy, her Chihuahua-mix, Stephanie enjoys “playing football” and cooking with her nephews, Bryson and Grayson, who live next door.

“I don’t know a lot about football, but they’re teaching me,” she says. “I’m just so thankful that I can take care of myself again.”

Stephanie adds that she is also thankful for her Gordon Home Care team, who exemplifies Gordon Hospital’s mission of extending the healing ministry of Christ to all they serve. .

“They have been a Godsend,” she says. “There is no telling where I would be today without them.”

Candy Van Dyke, RN, director of Gordon Home Care agrees, but quickly adds that Stephanie’s attitude and will to improve also played an enormous role in her recovery.

“In my 27 years in home care, I have never seen this kind of turnaround,” she says. “It’s a testament to Stephanie’s character, the determination of a caring healthcare team, and answers to prayer.”


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