My paralysis came as a sudden shock–like most people in my situation. Three and a half years ago, I was assembling a photo collage for my only daughter’s baby shower. It was March 6, 2020.
Life was Normal
It was after a long day at work. I was managing high-end rental office space for long-term clients at the time. I’d do everything from delivering their mail to configuring their IT and phone needs. It was a social job, kept me on my feet most of the day, and afforded me the time and headspace to pursue my freelance writing and jazz music. And I could go to the local gym several mornings a week.
My kids were grown, and life had settled into a nice routine.
So that evening, I was home alone and was carrying the collage. I slipped and fell on an area rug, and with my hands full, I had no way to brace myself.
I shattered my cervical neck vertebrae from C3-C7 and was paralyzed from my chest down.
Ignoring Troubling Signs
Looking back, I realized I had ignored signs of trouble: There had been many nights where I’d lay down and feel “pins and needles” going through my body. “Ah,” I thought, “This feels like a massage!”
Other times my neck would hurt to the point I’d ask my husband to pull my head to lengthen my neck. And when my three kids were little, there was nothing better than laying down and being a human balance beam for them to walk on, so they could crack my compacted vertebrae.
So after I fell, a local hospital sent me to Penn State Hershey Medical Center’s trauma unit. Dr. Mark Knaub, who did his residency at UPMC, didn’t mince words. It would be a risky operation, and I’d most likely be in a wheelchair with limited movement.
In My Surgeon and God’s Hands
I asked for a priest, received Anointing of the Sick, and was ready for surgery. I woke in the ICU recovery room with the very first friend I made in Kindergarten, Donna M., by my side. Even though we were hours from our hometown near the Philadelphia Airport, she was a director at the hospital, and word got to her I was there. I woke from a gnarly surgery, laughing about girlfriend things. Soon, with the care of Hershey’s inpatient Physical Therapy team, it became a reality that I might regain the use of my legs in some fashion.
The hospital was closed to visitors due to the pandemic, so I used that to my advantage: I woke every day knowing my new job was to work in the business of physical, occupational, game, and mental health therapy. I began the process of learning how to walk again. As other “tetra-palegic” know, I learned how to shower, dress and use the bathroom. For internal motivation and grounding, I started most days with EWTN Daily Mass, and when our parish set up a livestream, I was proud when I could stand at the proper times. (Kneeling, though, well, that had to wait).
It’s been a long and short three years. In January ’22 I had lumbar surgery for disc disease. My body has settled into a predictable pattern of spasticity that Botox only helps at times.
But I’ve also learned much about myself, and, daresay have grown a little. I’ve learned patience. I’ve developed even more empathy for others’ situations.
There have been many highs and lows, but I’ve learned that consistency must start with me, my trusted team of therapists, and my ability to learn when and how to ask for help–and when to say, “I can do it; thank you.”
Submitted by Cathy Cuff-Coffman
“Almost four years ‘in’ with a C3-7 and L4-6 incomplete. Accepting the past, living today with joy and gratitude, and basing my future on living as the best person I an be.”