Harold's story

Harold Phillips works with a therapist in the gym while wearing a neck brace.

Self-identified “country boy” Harold Phillips, 63, lives on the outskirts of a small Illinois town. A proud father of three adult children, whom he raised alone, Harold enjoys spending time with close friends and family when he’s not hunting or fishing. One of his favorite hobbies is playing with his dog, a 100-pound American bulldog named Quigley. Harold even purchased a four-wheeler for the specific purpose of exercising Quigley; he drives the four-wheeler while Quigley chases after him – an activity they both love.

One day, when Harold was working for a commercial catering company, he was transferring some large coolers when he fell to the ground, hitting his chin and forehead. Harold doesn’t remember falling, but recalls opening his eyes and seeing blood. As he laid there, Harold asked his boss, “Where are my hands?” His boss responded, “You’re lying on them.” When his boss asked him to move his feet, Harold said, “I am moving my feet.” His boss replied, “No, you’re not.” Harold knew then something serious had happened. 

Harold was rushed to the closest hospital, where he was immediately evaluated and underwent testing and imaging. The results showed that as a result of the fall, Harold experienced a spinal cord injury. Initially, he had no movement or feeling below his neck. Physicians at the hospital recommended that Harold be transferred to a hospital better equipped to deal with the severity and complexity of his injury. He was airlifted to SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri – a three-hour drive from his home. Harold says he was initially concerned about being so far from his family and friends, but was determined to get the best possible care and treatment for his injury.

After being assessed by neurosurgeons, Harold was diagnosed with central cord syndrome, a type of incomplete spinal cord injury that affects the cervical spinal cord – the portion of the spinal cord that runs through the bones of the neck. The condition typically results in weakness in the arms more than the legs. Central cord syndrome is considered an “incomplete” spinal cord injury because patients are usually not completely paralyzed. To reduce the pressure on his spinal cord in hopes of regaining feeling and movement below his neck, Harold underwent a cervical spinal cord decompression and fusion procedure.

The procedure was successful, but initially, Harold was unable to walk or move on his own. He required full assistance to get in and out of bed, get dressed and use the bathroom. While he slowly began to regain some feeling in his arms and legs, he was unable to move them on his own.

“It was very difficult,” Harold said. “I felt very depressed and was being very hard on myself. A couple days before, I was cutting down a tree at my house. After the injury, I couldn’t even lift my arms.” Harold felt helpless and didn’t know what his future held. That changed, however, when he was inspired by a TV commercial for a pediatric oncology hospital. “I saw those kids with cancer and told myself ‘You need to try, you’ve got to get up and do something,’” he recalls.

With a renewed spirit, Harold began making progress with the help of therapy. His movement and sensation in his legs began to return, and he was able to start walking with assistance. When his physicians recommended that inpatient rehabilitation be the next step in his recovery journey, Harold chose SSM Health Rehabilitation Hospital – Richmond Heights to continue building upon the gains he had already made.

Upon arriving at SSM Health Rehabilitation Hospital – Richmond Heights, Harold was able to walk with the assistance of two people but was still unable to use his arms. Because of this, he needed someone to feed and dress him as well as complete all grooming and hygiene tasks. Harold began an intensive, physician-led rehabilitation program to help him reach his goals of “getting back to life; getting back to where I can take care of myself and do what I want to do.”

In physical therapy, Harold initially required two people to assist him as he walked. While walking, Harold needed to have both arms in slings to prevent the shoulders from dislocating due to the weakness in his shoulder muscles. “He needed so much help walking at the beginning because he would frequently cross his legs over one another and would lose his balance on his left side,” his therapists noted. “He also dragged his feet when he was tired. We wanted to keep him safe because his arms did not work well enough to catch him if he were to fall.” Therapists focused on exercises to help build Harold’s strength and endurance as he practiced walking, going up stairs and improving his balance.

Occupational therapists focused on helping Harold regain movement and function in his arms so he could become more independent in his daily activities. His therapists trained him on using several pieces of equipment, including a deltoid aid, a freestanding arm support apparatus consisting of a frame of pulleys, springs, and slings, to support his arms so that he could use his hands to complete tasks like brushing his teeth and feeding himself. Therapists also used this equipment to build the strength in Harold’s arms. They also utilized electrical stimulation equipment to help him strengthen his arms. With the help of his team, Harold soon learned how to feed himself using special utensils and plates, including foam-handled utensils that allowed him to grip more easily and a plate guard that provided assistance in scooping bites.

Throughout his time at SSM Health Rehabilitation Hospital – Richmond Heights, Harold’s family was a huge support. Despite living hours away and their busy schedules, both his daughter and granddaughter visited him weekly. Harold says that his injury and hospitalization has brought his family closer and allowed them to be more involved and present in each other’s lives, something for which he is very grateful.

Harold made excellent progress while in rehab. Not only is he is able to feed himself and brush his teeth without special equipment, he is also able to dress himself, only requiring a bit of assistance due to some remaining weakness in his upper body.

“When my injury first happened, my arms weren’t working at all,” Harold remarked. “I couldn’t sign my name; I couldn’t even draw an ‘x.’ Now, I can sign my name, feed myself and blow my nose.” By the time he was ready to head home, Harold was able to walk 815 feet with a walker. His hands had become strong enough to hold onto the walker without needing slings. He was also able to walk up two flights of stairs with someone supervising to make sure he could see each step due to his neck brace.

Harold only has positive things to say about the hospital staff he encountered during his recovery. “The therapists pushed me. They didn’t let me cheat, and they cheered me on. The nursing staff has been awesome, too.” To those going through a challenging recovery, Harold offers the following advice: “Stick with it. Don’t give up. It’s a slow process, but it’ll happen. Trust the people and trust what they say.”

Upon returning home, where his granddaughter will live with him to provide support and assistance, Harold is looking forward to seeing his mother, who was unable to visit him because of health and transportation issues.

“I can’t wait to get a hug from mom. I’ve needed one so bad for so long. We’re stopping by her house on the way,” he said. Of course, he is excited to get a hug from his beloved dog, Quigley, too.