When Melissa Vicars took her dog Peenut for a walk late one evening in February 2014 to a park near her home in Henderson, Nev., she had no clue that what was normally a routine stroll would forever change her life.
A teenager driving drunk lost control of her SUV, which jumped the curb and sidewalk and struck Vicars, sending her 50 feet into the air before she landed on her head. While the outward injuries Vicars received—a dislocated elbow, bruising and cuts—were remarkably minor, the blow she suffered to her head was severe. She spent most of the next three weeks in a coma.
“The police said they were surprised anyone survived,” said Mark Olegario, Vicars’ fiancé.
Olegario and Vicars’ parents didn’t know if she was going to live or die and they got different prognoses from various medical professionals. But they had to quickly begin making decisions about her care. When a surgeon suggested that Vicars’ best shot at recovery would be seek rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Englewood, they agreed. With a ventilator and feeding tube in place, Vicars was airlifted to Colorado. Olegario and Peanut followed by automobile. For the next three months, Vicars underwent an intense regimen of therapy at Craig. Her eyesight, speech, memory and motor skills were affected, so she had to learn to talk, walk and eat again. Each weekday she had physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
Her progress at Craig so improved her life that Vicars and Olegario decided to make Colorado their permanent home in 2015. Nearly three years after Vicars’ traumatic brain injury, they continue to visit Craig for therapy to work on her vision and speech. The couple has nothing but praise for the facility, its staff and programs. “I feel lucky to be here, where there are so many resources,” said Vicars, now 36. “And to meet people who have had the same experience as I have.”
For Olegario, it has been gratifying to see his fiancée regain her abilities and learn to enjoy the simple things they used to do, like hike with their dog and go to restaurants. “It has been amazing; everything they have been able to do for her,” he said. “My goal is to see her achieve 90 percent of what she had before and she’s at about 85 percent now.” Vicars hopes to have her eyesight and reflexes improve enough that she’ll be able to drive a car again, and to volunteer with a community organization such as the Denver Botanic Gardens.
The couple’s experience underscores Craig’s mission to help its patients with traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries regain control over their lives. The facility prides itself on the fact that 91 percent of its patients return home after their initial rehab and 50 percent return to work or school within a year. The hospital, which has a staff of 700, treats an average of 500 inpatients and 1,400 outpatients annually. It also houses the families of new inpatients for up to 30 days for free in apartments adjacent to the hospital.
New and improved
As Craig’s reputation has spread, so has demand for services. The hospital is building on its success with a multi-year $90 million expansion and renovation project completed in September 2015 at its Englewood headquarters. The massive undertaking had many facets, but perhaps the most dramatic was closing Clarkson Street at East Girard Avenue. That created a campus feel on what once had been a busy city street. “We had people in wheelchairs trying to navigate through traffic,” said Mike Fordyce, Craig’s CEO. “It took all the noise away and improved safety, and it’s now a parklike setting,” Fordyce said. “I returned from a meeting the other day and got a big kick out of seeing it packed with people having lunch and enjoying the garden. It’s part of the therapy.”
Fordyce, who has been at the helm for eight years, isn’t the type of executive to stay cloistered in his office. A couple of times a day he can be found touring Craig, talking with staff members and getting to know patients and their families. One of the spots he visits is just off the lobby of the hospital’s newly renovated and expanded west building is The PEAK Center for exercise and wellness. Two-story windows flood the open room with natural light. Trainers guide patients through sessions on treadmills and bikes. Rock music adds energy to the already bustling pace.
PEAK (the acronym stands for Performance, Exercise, Attitude and Knowledge) works with people with such neurologic disabilities as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s in addition to those with spinal cord and brain injuries. The facility has equipment such as an anti-gravity treadmill that lets patients get strength and cardio workouts by stabilizing and supporting up to 80 percent of their body weight; bicycles that use electrical current to stimulate weak or paralyzed muscles during cycling, and a therapy pool with underwater cameras that analyze a person’s gait. Often, multiple therapists and family members assist patients as they learn to move again following accidents and debilitating medical issues.
This team approach is integral to not only the wellness center but everything that is done at Craig Hospital. To help patients regain their health and independence, they need a variety of specialists as well as the support of family and caregivers. “The typical team for each patient is a doctor, nurses, physical therapist, occupational therapist, recreational therapist, patient and family service counselor, psychologist, pharmacist, chaplain, dietician, and depending on their injury, specialists doing respiration and speech therapy,” said Mary Feller, executive director of the Craig Hospital Foundation.
Craig has long been renowned as a superior rehabilitation facility for people with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries, but with its latest makeover, the facility has taken its level of programs and services to an even higher level. The private, nonprofit organization has made the top ten list of rehab hospitals in America by U.S. News & World Report since the publication began its ratings in 1990. Craig often makes headlines for the high-profile patients it treats, such as swimmer Amy Van Dyken Rouen, who was paralyzed in an ATV accident in 2014.
With the expansion, the hospital now has 90-plus spacious single rooms, while previously, many rooms accommodated two patients. The new rooms also have more natural light and hands-free controls to adjust the lighting and temperature. One of the patient room elements suggested by nurses was to integrate the patient lift system into the design so it can be stored in cabinetry along the wall and then moved along tracks on the ceiling to the bed when needed. In keeping with the hospital’s family-friendly approach, there are new lounges where relatives can meet as a group, and “bistro”-style cafes on patient floors. Consultation and education spaces in the outpatient clinic, and a chapel are other new elements in the west building.
To make sure people get to practice skills they’ll need when back in their everyday lives, the hospital has a lab featuring a full-size sedan patients can learn to enter, exit and feel what it’s like to be behind the wheel. The lab also features rows of airline seats so they can experience what it will be like to get on and off an airplane.
The Foundation’s role
While health insurance pays for many of the physical needs patients have while undergoing rehabilitation, there is a long list of things not covered. That’s where the Foundation comes in, offering funds for such things as wheelchairs, money to make a home accessible, help in making mortgage or tuition payments.
Also important are therapeutic recreation programs that allow patients in wheelchairs to go fishing, hunting, sailing, bowling and many other pursuits. Among the pieces of equipment in the recreation room is a camouflage-painted wheelchair with tank-like metal tracks for taking patients on hunting trips. Music therapy, horticulture, cooking and a variety of other interests are met through programs tailored to patients. It’s often after patients have had a chance to go rafting, sailing or just to see a movie that they tell the staff, “‘This is when I felt like I was going to be OK,’” said the Foundation’s Feller.
Also crucial to the patient experience at Craig are services offered by volunteers. Annually about 200 people donate their time in departments ranging from administration to food service, therapy to special events, according to Jill Stelley Virden, who manages the volunteers. In the sewing room each Wednesday, volunteers create items that patients need, such as holders for their phones, and devices that help them hold a fork or spoon. Among the sewing room volunteers is Sarah Crook of Centennial, who began visiting Craig after her father, Patrick Scott, was paralyzed in a biking accident in 2011. “I was blown away by the treatment he received, and it felt like home, never like a hospital,” Crook said. “I could bring my kids and it felt like a community for patients.” After her father returned to his home in California, Crook started spending Wednesdays in the sewing room, modifying clothing for patients. “Sewing is a passion of mine and the other women became role models for me,” she said.
She has similar praise for the hospital staff. CEO Mike Fordyce, Crook said, “is unusual in the sense that he walks around and talks to people. He’ll come by the sewing room and ask about my dad. It’s unique for a hospital president to have such a sense of family.” Melissa Vicars and Mark Olegario count themselves as part of that family today as well.
BIO: Suzanne S. Brown is an award-winning writer and editor who was senior features editor for The Denver Post, and has contributed to Mountain Living and InStyle.
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