When Joseph Dotson Frazier fell 17 feet from an extension ladder and slammed headfirst into a concrete patio, his 24 year-old bodybuilder’s life turned upside down.
He had built a career for himself as a property manager that was based on physical labor and working with his hands. All of that came to a crashing halt when doctors told Frazier that his fourth and fifth vertebrae were broken and his spinal cord was severely damaged. He would never walk again, never raise a hammer to pound a nail. Instead, he’s had to learn to cope with life as a quadriplegic ? someone who is paralyzed from the neck down. Along the way, medical terms that were once a foreign language — autonomic dysreflexia, pressure sores, bowel and bladder dysfunction and catheterization — became part of his everyday vocabulary.
“The challenges weren’t just strictly physical. They were psychological too,” Frazier said from his home in Marietta, Ga., where he has round-the-clock nursing care, paid for by his workers’ compensation. “During the two-and-a-half months that I spent in rehab [at the Shepherd Center] in Atlanta, I had to learn how to be as independent as possible. That’s difficult when 99 percent of what you do requires help from someone else. So, what I had to do was learn to redefine independence. I did that it by taking advantage of my brains and my communication skills. Just because I can’t go and physically do something doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to my family and my neighborhood.?
Between 183,000 and 230,000 people in the United States suffer from spinal cord injuries. Every year, there are an estimated 10,000 new cases, according to the University of Alabama’s National Spinal Cord Injury Database. Typically, spinal cord injuries happen to young adults, with 55 percent of the injuries occurring in people between the ages of 16 and 30. Eighty percent of the injuries occur in men. Since 1990, the elderly have accounted for about 10 percent of spinal cord injuries.
Ten days after surgeons fused Frazier’s fourth and fifth vertebrae with wire and bone taken from his hip to stabilize his neck, he was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the nation’s largest spinal cord injury rehabilitation hospitals. Shepherd Center is one of 18 facilities the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research designate as a model spinal cord injury system. Other hospitals that share that designation include: Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, Boston University Medical Center, the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California, and the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey, where actor Christopher Reeve was treated.
The “model spinal care injury care system” label means a facility offers comprehensive medical, vocational and other rehabilitation services intended to give patients the skills and training to live on their own, rather than live out their days in a nursing home.
“You could call it the blue ribbon seal of approval,” said Monique Guyton, a marketing specialist for the Kessler Institute. “Among other things, it means we offer education classes for family members, who are taught about the emotional issues that go with this type of injury.”
For every patient who enters the rehab program at Shepherd Center, for instance, there are usually two family members or a relative and a close friend who enroll in the hospital’s home caregiver training course. In caring for patients with C-4, C-5 or C-6 vertebra damage, the caregivers need to know how to compress a patient’s lungs and how to suction secretions. That’s because some of the more debilitating spinal cord injuries rob people of their ability to cough. As a result, they are more prone to catching pneumonia.
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“Most spinal cord-injured people need the bulk of their help two times a day — when they are getting up and dressed in the morning, and then at night when they need to be bathed and have their bowels relieved,” said Doctor.
If their insurance won’t foot the bill or provide enough coverage for home care, many families stretch their budgets by hiring a part-time caregiver or a licensed practical nurse during the day, then relatives who have received patient-care training handle the nightly regimen themselves.