Tag Archives: rehabilitation

The Man in the Marine T-Shirt

December 27, 2014 by
Photography by Jon Pearson

Logan McDonald reported for duty as a U.S. Marine in October 2011. A month later, the then 18-year-old recruit from Mississippi was in a coma.

He had sustained a severe brain injury from viral encephalitis, which doctors believe was transmitted by a random insect bite. The brain injury resulted in cognitive, communicative, physical, and neuropsychiatric impairments. McDonald could not walk. He required assistance completing a majority of daily tasks and demonstrated severe communication deficits. He had trouble recalling information.

Thus began a three-year journey through a series of medical facilities. As McDonald crisscrossed the country bouncing from one rehab facility to another, some doctors advised the family that the young man in the Marine T-shirt was destined for a lifetime spent in assisted living facilities.

That’s when his grandmother, Anita Loper, found Quality Living, Inc., the Omaha non-profit that for two decades has raised the bar by working with individuals and families whose lives have been affected by brain injury or spinal cord injury.

“I just couldn’t picture him in some assisted living place forever,” says Loper, a retired nurse. “He’s always been such an independent person. He wouldn’t even let me wait with him when I dropped him off to report to camp. ‘I’ll be okay, Grandma,’ he said.”

McDonald is now inching his way to regaining his independence through QLI’s non-traditional, industry-changing rehabilitation programs.

By any measure, Loper says, McDonald has made remarkable progress at QLI. He now needs little if any help in tasks that once required round-the-clock assistance—showering, dressing, fixing breakfast.

“Now I come to visit and I can’t even find him because he’s out socializing with his friends here,” Loper chuckles as a broad grin spreads across McDonald’s face and his cheeks redden ever so slightly.

“That’s been our only problem with Logan,” says Taylor Kerschke, QLI’s coordinator of speech therapy services, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “He’s quite the ladies man.”

Cue a full-blown, rosiest of blushes now for the man in the Marine T-Shirt.

“Logan is a resilient young man who is completely engaged in every aspect of his rehab program,” says QLI president and CEO Patricia Kearns. “His program underlines QLI’s individualized approach to brain injury rehabilitation. Logan’s therapies are rigorous and specifically tailored to his personal goals and passions, and they are designed to ensure he will get back on a path in life that is meaningful to him.”

That path for McDonald, adds Kerschke, is independence. “Logan is only 21 and has his whole life ahead of him. The aim is to have Logan live with the least amount of assistance possible and we are relentless in doing everything we can to make that happen. We want him to be able to do the things he is passionate about.”

One of those passions, Loper explains, is McDonald’s love of the outdoors.

“Big…big…bass,” are the words that McDonald struggles to find as he gestures, holding his hands far apart to indicate that he landed a whopper on a recent QLI fishing trip.

McDonald’s forays into the wilds have also been facilitated by a gift from the Semper Fi Fund, a non-profit organization founded and coordinated by the spouses of injured and wounded Marines. McDonald’s high-tech Action Trackchair, something of a cross between a traditional wheelchair and something you’d see in the Transformers movie series, allows him a once unthinkable range of mobility. QLI has since acquired their own Action Trackchair, a gift from Steve Hornady, the CEO of Nebraska-based ammunition manufacturer Hornady Manufacturing.

“My goal is to set Logan up for success for independent living. That’s why we’re here,” says Loper, who has been living in Omaha throughout McDonald’s stay at QLI. “Much of the mindset of the medical community—even in the V.A. community—is that there are few gains to be made after a year in rehab. People hit a plateau, they told us. We couldn’t accept that. We knew there had to be more. We’ve found it here at QLI.”


Nature up close

August 7, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

With only a handful of part-time and seasonal employees, the very survival of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, Inc. (NWRI)—and the thousands of creatures who receive rehabilitative care from the organization every year—depends on the contributions of nearly 70 volunteers.

“Not everyone comes to us with animal skills per se, but what we’re looking for are people who are dedicated,” says NWRI Executive Director Laura Stastny. “We need them, and more importantly, the animals need them in order to be returned to the wild. It’s not easy work, but it’s really, really rewarding.”

The Easterday family exemplifies the best in volunteerism, Stastny says. Anne Easterday and her 16-year-old daughter Zoë, who will soon be joined by 22-year-old son Colin, help out at the NWRI wildlife center in Louisville or in their home with tasks from cleaning and maintenance to caring for litters of baby opossums around the clock. And the relationship with NWRI has really become a family affair; three more Easterday siblings (there are seven total) are too young to officially sign on as volunteers, but they pitch in where they can with tasks like changing cage bedding or helping build enclosures.

“That family is fantastic. There’s nothing that phases them and they show all of the qualities we look for. They show true dedication and they’re willing to not only take the education they’re given, but to educate themselves and really work in the best interest of the animals,” Stastny says. “They’re amazing and we’re thrilled to have them.”

The Easterdays first connected with NWRI through a Google search after finding a stranded wild water bird.

“I had found a pied-billed grebe that had gotten knocked down in a storm and was running down the street in my subdivision. I didn’t know what it was at the time, just that it was a bird that was unable to fly. So I picked it up and brought it home and tried to find somebody to take it,” Easterday recalls. “It was actually fine. I didn’t know that a pied-billed grebe has to have water in order to take off.”

Later that summer, the family turned to NWRI again after finding a fledgling grackle with an injured wing. “We called again and turned it over so somebody could take care of it, and my kids and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we actually knew what to do to help these things?’” Easterday says. It was Zoë who first suggested volunteering for the organization.

“I just really love animals, especially wild ones, and the idea of taking care of them and help them was amazing to me,” Zoë Easterday says. Although NWRI volunteers can help with tasks like answering phones and assisting with fundraising efforts, she and her mother signed up for the basic wildlife training program together to become qualified to work directly with animals. “I didn’t actually really know what to expect,” she says. “It can be a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it.”

Unfortunately, not all injured and orphaned animals survive to be re-released, and that’s just one of the life lessons the Easterday family has learned in their time with NWRI, says Anne Easterday.

“It really brings home the impact that human beings have on the lives of creatures that naturally live around us,” she says. “The kids have really learned and understand that these aren’t pets; they’re wild animals and there’s a difference.”

“The mission of Nebraska Wildlife Rebhab is two-fold: the first is to rescue, rehabilitate and re-release into the wild native wildlife and migratory birds. The second part of our mission is a very strong educational mission,” Stastny says. “The majority of the wildlife that we get comes to Nebraska Wildlife Rehab due to interference by human beings, often unnecessary interference. It’s only by education that we are going to teach people to live in harmony with wildlife.”

Wild animals are not suitable for adoption, Stastny says, which is why the group focuses on returning animals to their natural habitats and doesn’t keep animals in activity for educational purposes. “There are so many reasons for this but if nothing else, it boils down to the fact that it’s illegal for someone without a permit to have a possession of wild animal. So let’s start there,” she explains. “And while wild animals may be cute when they are really young, they mature and start thinking of things mature animals think about, and they can become really aggressive.”

Eastern cottontail rabbits are the species seen most frequently at NWRI, followed by songbirds and bats. Other creatures indigenous to Nebraska and seen at NWRI include opossums, raccoons, squirrels, woodchucks, red foxes, coyotes, bobcats and badgers, Stastny adds. Certain species or creatures from other parts of the country (usually transported unintentionally) may be referred to more appropriate organizations such as the Nebraska Humane Society, the Nebraska Herpetological Society or the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. These and other animal organizations also bring referrals to NWRI.

Zoë Easterday says that her favorite NWRI experience so far has been helping usher Canada goslings to one of their first swimming expeditions. Anne Easterday says her most meaningful assignment was assisting with a great blue heron receiving medical treatment after an encounter with fishing line.

“I got to hold this great blue heron in my lap and grasp its beak,” she says. “For me, it was really special. I’ve always personally loved animals, since I was a child. I feel incredibly blessed to have such close contact with things you usually only see from a distance.”


Surviving Heart Disease

January 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a young woman of just 38 years old, Dionne Whitfield didn’t fit the typical description of a heart disease patient. But there she was, standing in front of the cardiologist, still tired and breathless after undergoing a treadmill test, trying to grasp the news that she had three major blockages.

She didn’t hear much after that. All she could think about was that she didn’t want to become a mere statistic. That she still wanted to have a family and live to see her potential children grow up. What was going to happen to her, she thought.

One week later, in August of 2012, Whitfield was back in the hospital undergoing triple bypass surgery. Today, Whitfield is doing great, and with age on her side, she is determined to take control of her health and her life again.

Looking back, she knows now that her unhealthy lifestyle habits were bound to catch up with her eventually. At 352 pounds, she ate whatever she wanted, often grabbing fast food along the way. She rarely exercised, and she had settled for the fact that she was overweight and nothing was going to change that. She was also African-American, a population that tends to have greater prevalence of risk factors for heart disease than Caucasian women.

“This has been a big eye-opening experience for me, and I don’t want to go back.” – Dionne Whitfield, heart disease patient

Whitfield’s attitude about her weight and health has done an about-face since then. Her attitude actually started to change with several warning signs shortly before the news of her blockages. In early January of last year, she learned that she was borderline diabetic. Concerned, Whitfield began attending group exercise classes and the pounds began to fall off. Motivated by her success, she began to make exercise a priority.

Then came her second warning. In July, she started becoming so short of breath that she could barely make the short walk from her office to the car. When things didn’t get better, she consulted with her doctor, who referred her to cardiologist Edmund Fiksinkski, M.D., at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who performed the cardiac testing in which the blockages were found.

Whitfield’s surgery was performed by John Batter, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon at Nebraska Methodist Hospital. After surgery, she underwent six weeks of supervised cardiac rehabilitation. Whitfield exercises on her own now but is still considered in a recovery phase for the next year and follows a moderate exercise program while her arteries heal.

“Dionne has done great,” says Susana Harrington, a nurse practitioner at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who worked with Dionne throughout her recovery. “She really owned it and became more determined than ever to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

“This has been a big eye-opening experience for me, and I don’t want to go back,” says Whitfield. She continues to work out regularly, watches what she eats, and even reads labels now before putting food in her grocery basket.

She has also lost more than 72 pounds and is determined to double that. “I feel so much better now,” says Whitfield. “I’m not breathless now, and exercising is getting easier.”

 “She really owned it and became more determined than ever to lead a healthy lifestyle.” – Susana Harrington, nurse practitioner at Nebraska Methodist Hospital

What women need to learn from this is that the development of cardiovascular disease is a lifelong process and that prevention is a lifelong effort, says Amy Arouni, M.D., cardiologist at Alegent Creighton Health. Controlling your risk factors very early in life can help prevent the development of heart disease later. This includes quitting smoking if you smoke, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating a diet low in saturated fats with lots of fruits and vegetables, and watching your blood pressure and cholesterol. In fact, women can lower their heart disease risk by as much as 82 percent just by leading a healthy lifestyle, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Prevention is important because heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all women, claiming the lives of approximately a half million women each year.

The main difference between men and women is that women are more likely to develop heart disease in their 60s and 70s, about 10 years later in life than men.

That’s because after menopause, risk factors tend to rise in women, especially blood pressure and cholesterol levels and rates of obesity, says Eugenia Raichlin, M.D., cardiologist at The Nebraska Medical Center. Other risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, and family history also raise a woman’s risk.

“The longer you wait, the greater the potential to suffer significant damage to the heart.” – Amy Arouni, M.D., cardiologist at Alegent Creighton Health

The consequences of heart disease also tend to be more severe in women. For instance, “a greater number of women die of sudden cardiac death before their arrival at a hospital (52 percent) compared to 42 percent of men,” says Dr. Raichlin. “Women often require more hospitalizations compared to men, have lower ratings of general well-being, and limitations in their abilities to perform activities of daily living. As a result, heart disease in women presents a unique and difficult challenge for physicians.”

In addition to prevention, women should also be aware of the symptoms of heart disease and the subtle changes in their bodies, says Dr. Arouni. “Unlike men, women’s symptoms tend to be more vague and atypical and may include mild neck, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort; shortness of breath; nausea or vomiting; sweating; lightheadedness or dizziness; extreme fatigue and/or a jaw ache that travels down the neck,” she says. “Because the symptoms tend to be vague, oftentimes, women will stay at home and ride it out.”

This is one of the key areas where women go wrong. “Getting help quickly is critical,” says Dr. Arouni. “The longer you wait, the greater the potential to suffer significant damage to the heart.”

While the development of heart disease in a woman’s 30s is less common, it does happen, especially when other risk factors are involved such as family history, obesity, or diabetes.

Whitfield feels fortunate that she and her doctors took her symptoms seriously and that she sought help early on. Now, she hopes she can help other women avoid the same fate by taking control of their health at a young age. “I feel very grateful to my family and friends and to the doctors and nurses that helped me get through this,” she says. “When you’re young, you don’t think anything can happen to you, but now I know differently. I don’t take my health for granted anymore.”