“Anything I touched turned to gold” is how 31-year old Demarius Branson of East St. Louis, Missouri, describes his life before that fateful day. An energetic former athlete, Demarius was driving to a friend’s house when a car cut him off and slammed on their brakes. Unable to stop in time, he careened into the back of the car. The force of the impact made Demarius lose consciousness, which he did not regain until he was inside the MRI machine at St. Louis University Hospital.
In addition to facial fractures and lacerations that required stitches, Demarius suffered a cervical spinal cord injury that resulted in tetraplegia, or paralysis in all four limbs. He underwent a six-hour surgery where neurosurgeons placed eight screws into his spine to provide stabilization and help prevent any compression of his spinal cord. Demarius spent seven days in the hospital before he was stable enough for the next step in his recovery – inpatient rehabilitation.
Upon arrival at SSM Health Rehabilitation Hospital – Bridgeton, Demarius required maximum assistance to complete all of his personal care tasks including dressing, bathing, footwear management, eating and grooming. He was experiencing minimal movement in his right arm and foot, but had no movement in his left arm or foot. Unable to get in and out of bed, Demarius required the use of a Hoyer lift, a hydraulic mobility tool that allows a person to be lifted and moved via a sling. He also required the assistance of two people to maintain his balance while sitting. Initially, he was only able to sit for 31 seconds before experiencing dizziness and decreased blood pressure, a common issue experienced by patients with spinal cord injury. Demarius was determined to walk out of the hospital on his own. His physician-led team of nurses and physical, occupational and recreational therapists devised a plan to help him reach that goal.
In physical therapy, the initial focus to help Demarius improve his sitting tolerance and balance. Because he was unable to drive a power wheelchair using his hands, therapists set Demarius up with a head controlled wheelchair. Once his sitting tolerance improved, therapists began using a functional electrical stimulation bike to activate the muscles in his legs. They also had Demarius use a tilt table, which is a special table in which a person is strapped at the waist and knees for stabilization while the table is slowly moved to an upright position.
Over time, the use of the tilt table improved Demarius’ tolerance for being upright and, eventually, standing. Therapists then introduced a standing frame, which is a specifically designed device that safely positions a patient’s body to stand in an upright position, to further improve his tolerance for standing. About a month into his stay, Demarius was able to stand – without the use of a standing frame – with assist of two people.
From there, Demarius and his team worked on sit-to-stand training and walking. Initially, he required the assistance of two people to help him walk and one person to follow with a wheelchair for safety. Because he did not have the muscle control to use a walker, Demarius needed to walk with his arms around his therapists’ shoulders. He also required weights on his legs to help with muscle control. As he progressed, Demarius was able to use a platform walker with minimal assistance and without anything to help him control his legs. It was at this point that therapists began training Demarius on ascending and descending stairs with assistance.
Occupational therapists worked with Demarius on improving his strength, endurance, range of motion and coordination so that he could become more independent in his personal care tasks. Therapists focused on helping Demarius regain the use of his arms by utilizing electrical stimulation equipment, and the Saebo Mobile Arm Support, a zero gravity upper extremity device specifically designed to facilitate and challenge the weakened extremity during tasks and exercise drills. Demarius and his occupational therapists also worked on using adaptive equipment to complete functional tasks including brushing his teeth and eating. Throughout his time in therapy, Demarius began to show amazing progress with motion and strength in his right arm. He soon was regaining muscle activation in his entire right arm and began to grasp items and participate in his personal care tasks, including getting dressed using adaptive equipment.
During his stay at SSM Health Rehabilitation Hospital, Demarius also participated in recreational therapy, including the hospital’s spinal cord injury support group. He was able to access peer mentors through Paraquad, a St. Louis-based organization focused on assisting individuals with disabilities. “Those visits increased my confidence,” Demarius stated. “Paraquad made me realize that if other people can do it, then I can do it.”
He also participated in community reintegration, which allowed him to use his new skills in outings outside of the hospital. This also helped Demarius recognize barriers that were in the community and allowed him to work through them while still in the hospital. Additionally, he participated in pet therapy, which allowed him to work on moving his arms and hands in order to pet the facility dog. Demarius also enjoyed recreation and leisure activities, including card games and chess, and listening to audio books.
After 71 days, Demarius made incredible progress in improving his independence and ability to participate in activities. He was nearly independent when going from sitting to standing and getting in and out of a car and could navigate 12 stairs while using a handrail and standby assistance from a therapist. Demarius was able to walk with a platform walker, and put on his pants and socks using adaptive equipment. His standing tolerance also reached 10 minutes while completing exercises and activities during therapy. Further, Demarius regained functional movement and strength in his entire right arm and was starting to show improvement with his left arm.
When it came time for him to leave the hospital, Demarius was able to meet his goal of walking out of the building using a platform walker – his top goal upon admission.
Demarius most looked forward to seeing his family, especially his niece and nephews, and friends. He also couldn’t wait to get a haircut before continuing his recovery with outpatient therapy.
When asked what advice Demarius would offer to those going through a tough recovery, he offers the following insight: “Believe in yourself, never give up in yourself, be confident. If you have doubts, then you can’t accomplish things. You will have bad days and that’s OK, as long as the good days outweigh the bad days. Cry about things for the first week and then after that, get down to business. Always cherish the small wins; they lead to big wins.”