An active retiree beats paralysis and cancer with a can-do attitude.
Resilience has no age limit. Just ask now 71-year-young Steve Hughes.
About a dozen years ago, Hughes retired from a successful computer engineering career and moved to the Austin, TX area from Detroit. An active man, he said he was ready to get on with everything he and his wife had planned to do.
Sudden, Debilitating Pain
But around June of 2021, The Hughes’ went back to Detroit for his wife’s mother’s memorial service. While there, he was doing some moving and other physical labor and he began having sudden “10 out of 10” pain in his back.
“I went to the Emergency room in Detroit three times in four days, and each time they thought I was seeking pain meds and sent me away,” he says.
Hughes and his wife went back to the hotel. He was crawling on the floor, writhing in pain. They called 911 and asked to be taken to a different hospital. That hospital did an MRI and found an aggressive non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma tumor impinging upon his spine and spinal cord.
“They scheduled surgery right away and removed the tumor,” says Hughes. “If it had been another 24 hours, I would never have walked again,” surmises Hughes.
Hughes was in Michigan for three weeks to recover from all the surgery he had. “Besides being covered in sensors and tubes, I could only wiggle my toes,” he recounts. “There I was, 70 years old, T3-T7 incomplete SCI paraplegic, and a cancer patient.”
However, says Hughes, when the surgeon visited a couple of days later, “I managed to jerk both my feet!” Hughes relates that the surgeon’s eyebrows rose, and he declared Hughes’ recovery estimation had gone from 50-50% to 90-10% in his favor.
“I was getting a sense of what I was in for but said, “I’m going for the ‘best possible outcome, whatever that can be.”
But first, Hughes had to get to the business of beating cancer. In Detroit, he could not do physical rehab and chemotherapy at the same time.
So, he paid what amounted to the cost of a small car for an Angel flight back to Austin where he could do both at the same time.
He was admitted to Central Texas Rehabilitation Hospital, and they were willing to work with both chemo and physical therapy.
After two months, Hughes was discharged to home, where he continued chemo, radiation, and outpatient PT with an outfit called Post-Acute Medical in the Round Rock, TX area.
“Well, six months of chemo and three weeks of radiation later, the cancer was declared in remission,” he says.
Intensive PT Program
Thanks to the 3x week PT sessions, Hughes could pull himself in his wheelchair and drag himself to his feet to stand on his walker. His first goal had been to take a first step on a walker – then 10,000 more.
Hughes continued this routine until he was accepted to Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, part of Northwestern University. Hughes says his opinion is that it is the number one rehabilitation hospital in the country.
It was intensive therapy. His program consisted of three times a day, five days a week. “It’s the best thing I could have ever done,” Hughes says as he gets emotional. “I learned two important things: keep moving and don’t get hurt.”
With the aid of arm crutches, Hughes started standing on the first of 2022. That’s when he started taking his first steps. It started with one step, and increased from there.
“I would practice standing at my walker, do knee bends and sways, then slowly go to fingertip support and balance for 10-20 seconds, and increase from there,” he says.
“I would do laps down the hallway at home with my wife, following with my chair – 8 trips, 10 times a day. Then laps around the kitchen, then 30 minutes at a time solo,” recounts Hughes.
Did we say that resiliency has no age limit?
Soon, Hughes added floor yoga and arranged rides to the community senior center, where he would take advantage of the various weights and other equipment. But even then, those rides stopped when he was cleared to drive a car.
“In January, I started driving as part of OT,” he relates,” and after only four hour-long sessions around Austin, the instructor turned me loose to drive! Now I can take myself to the gym and PT and run errands or go to the library,” he says, beaming with pride.
Little Human Motivator
But his best motivator is his little granddaughter. While Hughes was in Michigan before his troubles began, he and his then 3-year-old granddaughter took a special hike in the woods.
“And then when I was in the hospital,” he says,” she sent me a message saying, ‘Grandpa Steve, when you get better, we’re going to take a hike in the woods.’”
“Last week, they came to Austin to visit, and I posted a video of her and I hiking the most difficult trail of logs and stones, but we did it. We took that hike in the woods.”
“I’m getting there,” says Hughes, “Using attitude, effort, and whatever support systems I can find. There is no going back.”
He says he has never NEVER spent a minute feeling sorry for himself, “though there is the inevitable anger at having to go through all this, the effect it all has on my wife and all the plans we’d made for this time in our lives.”
“My recovery is my full-time job. But there is no going back, only going forward,” he smiles.
“I got this.”
Steve Hughes’ Shalieve Wisdom
Take all the help you can get. “You have found yourself in a dependent position and no matter how independent you have been, there is no shame in asking for help. People want to help you and you should give them the opportunity to do so.”
It is ultimately up to you. “As much respect as I have for the medical community, they are not your friends. What you need to make happen, you need to make it happen on your own, so work as hard as you can. Every victory is something that you win for yourself.”
Keep moving. “Do within with what you’re able to do. And whatever it is that you want to do, find the means necessary to do that.”