Positivity + Patience: How to Recover from a Spinal Cord Injury

(Guest Blog contributed by Leah Neary)

The day before my birthday, I was out in my backyard when I tripped over an extension cord and I fell. After I fell, I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't even move my arms or my legs. I was terrified. Once the ambulance came, I started to get movement back into my arms, and slowly regained feeling in my legs, but I still had incredible pain in my arm and no strength.

Once I was at the hospital and they started doing X-rays and MRIs, they were able to tell me I slipped a disc between my C4 and C5 vertebraes, which resulted in temporary paralysis but long term recovery.

I am incredibly lucky that I met Dr. Hope, because he was able to perform surgery, fusing together three of my vertebrae and helping me to recover.

I feel that healing from my injury and surgery was more successful because Dr. Hope was honest and helped calm my fears while also giving me realistic guidelines about my expectations for healing. I'm a very active person. I play tons of tennis. I run, I ski. I've been active all my life. I can't tell you how scared I was that I would never recover or even be able to do the things I loved like vacationing with my family or cheering at sports.

Dr. Hope was always very forthright with me, and made sure to explain things in terms that I could easily understand.

For instance, when my feet were still cold after the surgery Dr. Hope was kind but honest. He told me that the cold could be something that would take a year or even two years to resolve. Having this kind of knowledge put me much more at ease in understanding the process of healing.

The time before and after the surgery was tough. I was still in quite a bit of pain. I took prescription pain meds for a few days, but was reduced to a milder reliever for about 6 weeks. I continued the medication under the supervision of Dr. Hope for the remaining pain and sensitivity in my arm. Even the fabric of a long-sleeve shirt touching my arm bothered it. It was pretty remarkable that I couldn’t even wear a watch for almost 3 months.

Another thing that greatly helped my recovery was physical activity.  Even though after my surgery I had to continue to wear a neck brace, I started walking at the mall. This helped me keep up my strength, but it also helped me mentally and emotionally, because I felt like I wasn’t giving up.

Once I could walk three miles, I started increasing my distances. About a month after surgery I was up to five miles. I’ve always been an athlete and I never would see myself as a “mall walker,” but I needed to do something, and with my limited abilities, this made perfect sense.

At the same time, I also needed to build back up my strength and dexterity, because my hand and arm were so weak. I couldn’t even grip a pen at that point, so every day I practiced writing my ABCs more than ten times just to get that strength back in my fingers.

After three or four weeks I was able to start working just a bit from home. I couldn’t drive for almost 10 weeks, but I was lucky to have a great support system in my family and friends.

I had a lack of mobility in my neck, so there were things I obviously couldn’t do. However, everything else I tried to do myself--just a little bit slower than before. It was important for me, especially as a mom to two teenagers, to be able to do things for myself and for my family.

As for building up physical activity, I love to swim, and three months after surgery, I was able to get into the pool.

I started jogging a little at six months, and would do little exercises from home, like squats or lifting light weights. I also started doing yoga. It was important not to overdo it, because when I did, I could feel it in every nerve center in my body. 

Mental toughness is one things you must have in recovering from a spinal cord injury. I was resolute that I wasn't going to let this ruin my life or dictate what I could or could not do.

In order to stay mentally tough and engaged, I forced myself to get up every morning and make breakfast. I still did all the cooking I could, and would wear gloves when I was cutting something, because my hands were still so weak I was worried I would cut myself.

Although I wanted to continue to do all the normal things in my life, there were also things I wasn’t going to be in a rush to get back into, like tennis. I took care of myself. I watched more tv shows, I rested. I considered this a little hiatus from the stresses of the other parts of life and just focused on recovery. 

Today, I’m probably at an 8 out of 10 in feeling like my “old self.” Doing a sit up is really hard on my neck, and my feet are still cold. I have regained all the strength back in my fingers and my arms because I had fusions, but the mobility in my neck has never been the same.

My advice to anyone going through a spinal cord injury is to be positive and take the time to do physical things for yourself. Just go to the mall and walk. You might not be able to do three miles but just walk one mile. Eat right, sleep and try to stay positive. And when you do get afraid, just breathe and be calm and if you need to, call Dr. Hope. He was so good about telling me to do this. To call him. Nine out of 10 times, it's probably nothing, but knowing he had my best interests at heart, I knew I could rely on him.

Having a spinal cord injury is one of the most terrifying things you can go through, and it’s a slow, slow road to recovery. You have to be really, really patient, and allow yourself to take it one day at a time, even when recovery seems like it’s at a standstill. Dr. Hope managed those expectations, but he also continued to be so calm throughout the process that he also was able to help me lower my emotions and anxiety.

I credit a lot of my recovery to not only Dr. Hope and the team at CCSS, of course, but to being in good shape before my accident. Being healthy beforehand helped me greatly in recovering afterwards, and Dr. Hope’s guidance and care helped me to stay grounded and mentally ready for the healing I still had to do.

Dr. Donald Hope