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Physical and occupational therapists help TBI patients recover faster
Apr 1, 2011
By: Jennifer Walker
When Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head and critically injured by Jared Lee Loughner Jan. 8, she was lucky in a way.
That's because the bullet entered through and exited out of the left side of her head. If the bullet had traveled from the left to right side of the brain — crossing the area where several major blood vessels lie — the damage could have been much worse.
Still, the damage is done and now Giffords has a long road to recovery. The left side of the brain is responsible for language, memory of verbal and written messages, and analysis. (The right side, on the other hand, controls spatial reasoning, memory of events seen and done, and the ability to put pieces of information together to form a whole.) Her days will be filled with physical, occupational, and speech therapy sessions, one after another.
Giffords' specific treatment plan is still developing. But four therapists who have worked with patients suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI) — caused by everything from falls to strokes — share their patients' stories of how they worked to regain their independence.
(Note: Pseudonyms are used for the patients' names.)
Photo : Getty Images/Rubberball/Mike Kemp
Physical therapy assistant Don Meadows, LPTA, clearly remembers one of the TBI patients he worked with while on assignment in Oklahoma City. Jason was in a truck accident, having hit an oilrig.
At the time, Jason was able to walk, but he had terrible balance. When he had a boot on his right foot, he could stand on that leg. But his left leg was unstable. Meadows worked on helping Jason stand up and get comfortable with putting his weight on his right leg only while maintaining his balance when standing, and finally transition from a walker to crutches.
But Meadows' biggest challenge was convincing Jason that he had injuries that required him to be in the hospital. "He thought everything was fine with him," Meadows says.
Poor attention spans like this, Meadows explains, are common in TBI patients. He often has to redirect them back to the task at hand. For example, he had a TBI patient who was also a veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Susan liked to talk about everything that was bothering her during her physical therapy sessions. "You listen a little bit," Meadows says. "Then it's like, 'OK, let's get back to work.'"
Meadows also points out that he can't leave TBI patients alone for a second because impulsivity can be a side effect of their injuries. Case in point: a patient who took off in his wheelchair during a session with one of Meadows' colleagues. The session was on the fifth floor; later, they found the man down on the second floor.
As a traveler, though, Meadows' time on assignments is short. He has left patients in the middle of recovery when he gets a new assignment. "You really hate to leave, especially with the patients because you get to watch their progress to a certain extent," he says. But he'll stay in touch. Sometimes he'll call the facilities he used to work in; sometimes patients will call him.
As an assistant physical therapist, Meadows says he's able to spend more time with his patients. And that's his favorite part of the job. He loves watching them progress in their treatment plans and meeting their families. "I'm the worker bee," he says with a laugh. "I love to do the work."
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