Getting Back To Life After Spinal Cord Injury

Genesis offers accredited spinal cord injury care

Haley Gilbraith of Rock Island was home on a two-week military leave when the 21-year-old’s life hit a bump in the road.

She was driving an all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) last March 23 on a farm in Milan, when she struck a bump. As one of the ATV wheels left the ground, she swerved to upright it only to hit a tree and have the vehicle overturn on top of her. That unfortunate turn would begin a turning point in her life.

  • Genesis occupational therapist Amanda Hoxie watches as spinal cord injury patient Haley Gilbraith disassembles her wheelchair so it will fit in her car during therapy at the Genesis Day Rehabilitation Program. The first time she attempted the task, it took
her 40 minutes. Now, she masters this in 3 minutes.
  • Building upper strength is crucial. “My arms are my new legs,” says Gilbraith, who lost the use of her legs in an ATV accident last March.
  • Spinal cord injury patient Haley Gilbraith works in the kitchen at the Genesis Day Rehabilitation program, where she learns activities of daily living like doing dishes from her wheelchair.
  • She also builds arm strength as she raises herself up from her wheelchair with the help of physical therapist Sarah Anderson.

Fully conscious, she remembers lying on the cold ground, in extreme pain, with a dawning awareness that she couldn’t feel her legs. She remembers calming her stepdad as he called 911. She’d had enough first aid in basic training to know her situation wasn’t good. Already, she had fleeting thoughts that her plans for a lifetime career in the military would probably have to change.

“In basic training, they teach you how to deal with people who have a spinal cord injury in battle,” says Gilbraith, a Senior Airman in the Air Force who was stationed in Texas. “I knew something was terribly wrong. I couldn’t feel my legs. I remember the paramedics moving me and saying to them, ‘Ooh, I’m in so much trouble.’ They assured me they would get me to the hospital as quickly as possible, but I was pretty sure this was a permanent injury.”

Fully conscious during the air ambulance flight to Peoria, she remembers pain, overpowering nausea and a realization that her life would dramatically change. Later, she would be told her lower back had been broken at the T12 vertebrate.

“The morning after my surgery, the surgeon told me ‘The chances of you walking again are pretty much zero.’ I remember thinking he was really blunt. I was in the Peoria hospital for 10 days until I was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit at Genesis Medical Center, Davenport. Until then, it hadn’t exactly registered to me that I was a paraplegic.”

Rebounding with rehabilitation

Haley Gilbraith doesn’t dwell on where life might have taken her if she hadn’t driven an ATV that day. Instead, the fourand- a-half months she has spent in the Genesis Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation program has helped her prepare for the future that lies ahead. She currently is in the process of being discharged from the military and is pondering a career that involves working with animals.

Close to home with her family’s support nearby, she is being helped by an experienced Genesis spinal cord injury treatment team and a program built upon more than three decades of comprehensive spinal cord injury treatment care.

The Genesis Spinal Cord System of Care is the only CARF accredited program in Iowa and the Quad Cities, with outpatient and inpatient programs. She is learning new ways of doing things that will help her in “getting back to life.”

“Haley doesn’t look back, she just looks forward,” says occupational therapist Molly Muhl, who worked with her during the month she spent on the inpatient unit at the West Central Park campus in Davenport.

On the inpatient unit, Gilbraith underwent physical, occupational and therapeutic recreation therapies. “I can’t move my legs, but I have full use of my arms. I worked on increasing my upper body strength because my arms have become my new legs,” she says.

The irony of learning again how to put on her shoes and pants as an adult or to sit on the edge of the bed without falling over is not lost on her. “Try putting on pants without using your legs. It’s harder than you think,” she says. “And learning how to put my shoes on? That was the most frustrating of all.”

Despite the frustrations, including discovering her bathroom at home was too small to fit her and her wheelchair, she stays positive for a very good reason.

“I was conscious when I had my accident and aware enough to look around,” says Gilbraith, who graduated from Rock Island High School in 2010. “There was a tree stump about 6 inches from my head, and I keep thinking, ‘The accident could have been worse.’ I’m lucky to be alive.”

Her optimism in the face of adversity has also sustained her since she left the inpatient unit, and then next, as she has undergone intensive rehabilitation three times a week at the Genesis Day Rehabilitation Program.

The program, the first in Iowa and the only one in the Quad Cities region, serves as a bridge for patients who no longer require hospitalization but still need intensive regular rehabilitation after a serious illness or injury. Patients continue the necessary level of therapy during the day, and then return home at night and to daily life.

In addition to physical, speech, occupational and therapeutic recreation therapies, Day Rehabilitation patients also receive nursing care and the oversight of a physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

She has learned skills to help her adapt to a new way of life, including how to cook from her wheelchair and how to get in a car from the wheelchair, fold it into the car and drive.

“Haley is very motivated during therapy. She doesn’t accept failure. She pushes and pushes until she achieves her goal. She works so hard, and instead of focusing on what she can no longer do, she looks for the things she can do,” says occupational therapist Amanda Hoxie, who has worked with Gilbraith in the Genesis Day Rehabilitation Program.

Since her accident, Gilbraith has gotten involved in the Wounded Warriors Program and has traveled to Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas to participate in adaptive sports programs. She has tried wheelchair basketball, hand-cycling and her favorite -- archery. She also is involved in the monthly Quad Cities Spinal Cord Injury Support Group.

In addition to providing inpatient and outpatient services, Genesis follows its spinal cord injury patients throughout life and assists them when new needs arise. This continuum of care includes: followup phone calls through their lifetime; physical assessments to identify issues like skin integrity or spasticity; wheelchair assessments; and, information on new technology.

Gilbraith continues to work hard to make the best out of her life-changing circumstances.

“I try to stay positive. The accident definitely could have been worse. It’s better to live without the use of my legs than not to live at all.”

To learn more about the spinal cord injury care program at Genesis, go to

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