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A Future of Opportunities After a Spinal Stroke

March 09, 2021

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the 2020 Craig Foundation Gratitude Report to donors.


Me and my six siblings

Hi, I’m Abigail.

I live in Lowell, Arkansas, with my parents and siblings. I am the third-oldest of seven children. We are a very close-knit family, and there is never a dull moment in my house.

My dad is my biggest supporter, and my mom and I are super tight. When I talk to her, it is like talking to a friend.


Signing my letter of intent to play at Ouachita.

Homecoming 2019

Senior Year

In January 2020, my life was going great. I was in the second semester of my senior year in high school. Anytime there was any sort of an event at school or church, I was there. I led several programs at my school, including a mentoring program for younger students. I ran track and had signed a national letter of intent to play soccer at Ouachita Baptist University. I was crowned homecoming queen.

I began experiencing some numbness in my left shin. I thought it was shin splints and I brushed it off. I didn’t even tell my parents.

On Jan. 20, 2020, I woke up and rolled over in bed. Suddenly I felt excruciating back pain that wrapped around my body. It was the worst pain I’d ever experienced. No position brought relief.

I managed to make my way downstairs and asked my parents to make me a chiropractic appointment, then fell asleep restlessly on the couch. When I woke up an hour later, everything from my abdomen down was numb.

The pain was overwhelming sometimes

Diagnosis

The chiropractor checked my reflexes (nonexistent) and sent me directly to the emergency room.

I spent 10 days at the hospital, being tested and scanned. “We’re baffled,”the doctors kept saying.

Eventually, I was given a diagnosis of exclusion: a fibrocartilaginous embolism. The doctor said that a piece of a herniated disk had chipped off and lodged in my spinal cord, causing a spinal stroke.

Time to go.

When my neurologists determined that I did have a spinal cord injury, they recommended that we come to Craig for rehabilitation.

My family researched several facilities, but we were drawn to Craig because of the School Program. I was so close to graduating, I didn’t want to be held back because I was missing school.

Mrs. Chris from Craig’s Admissions Department flew out to visit me, and after that, things began falling into place.

Leaving the hospital for my flight on the air ambulance

Craig Hospital

After my air ambulance flight, I was rolled into my room at Craig. The people who greeted me were so happy. They made me feel comforted even though I was a thousand miles away from my community.

On Monday morning, we hit the ground running with therapy. My physical therapist, Mrs. Maggie asked me what my goals were. I told her I wanted to run again. From that point forward, my goal became my care team’s goal.

Working out in the 4th floor gym

Paddleboarding in the Craig pool to work on my balance

Home away from home.

Before I left the hospital in Arkansas, I had started moving a toe. On my first day in physical therapy at Craig, I was able to take a few steps supported in the Vector gait training harness system.

After that, every day was different.

I loved all of my therapies. I never felt like I was in a hospital. I baked cake and bread with my occupational therapists Mrs. Johanna and Mrs. Katie so that I could relearn how to work in a kitchen with my new body. I used the underwater treadmill and the air-supported treadmill in the PEAK Center. In therapeutic recreation, I was able to ride a recumbent bike, play ping pong and go paddleboarding in the pool. I even used a virtual reality system.


Family

Having my family with me during my time at Craig was incredible. My mom and my younger brothers stayed in one of Craig’s Family Housing apartments near campus. My dad came every weekend. My older siblings visited often. Someone was always there to eat lunch with me, play games during downtime and keep me company. Having them with me was like having a piece of home.

I even caught one of my little brothers having a foot race in the hallway with one of the doctors. We loved it when Craig animal therapists came to visit. Torrey the Newfoundland came to my room every Monday night with her owner, Joe. Joe was so intentional about visiting with me, remembering all about my family and talking with me about my progress.

School

I never felt stressed about finishing my senior year, which was a huge thing for me. My Craig teacher, Laura, was amazing. She worked with my teachers back home to create a reasonable learning plan that would allow me to graduate on time with my class. Laura made learning fun, from running Jeopardy games helping me learn facts to taking me outside to do my homework. She even helped me with a dissection!

I don’t think I would have made it through without her there to help me with the work and to be my advocate.


Teen Rehab

I loved being involved with the Teen Rehab at Craig program. It was incredibly helpful to participate in activities and education sessions with people my age. We went on outings and to dinner to learn how to navigate the world with our new devices and bodies.

We built close friendships because we could relate to each other. Every one of us had a different injury story, but there was a common factor of pain. Being injured was the lowest point in my life, and it was probably theirs too. It was helpful to meet people who were in that dark valley with you and were also working to come out on the other side stronger. I still stay in touch with my Craig friends, even though we live all over the country.

When I first got to Craig, I was told that every patient meets with a psychologist. I didn’t understand why, but in retrospect, I realize how much it helped. Dr. Lindsey helped me process my injury.

The best way I can describe it is a journey. Because I was in Colorado, I was able to see mountains at every turn. Every day I was conquering new mountains and learning new things. I was in the thick of some of the worst months of my life, but I had joy because my whole care team was around me, encouraging and supporting me.

Homeward Bound

After I was discharged from inpatient therapy, I worked with the outpatient therapists for weeks. Mr. Tyler, my physical therapist, taught me how to manage stairs so that I could return home to my room on the second floor.

I’ve left behind my wheelchair and my walking sticks, because of Craig. When I went back home to Arkansas, I was able to graduate with my class, walking to accept my diploma. I received a scholarship for college from Craig’s Alumni Educational Scholarship fund but ultimately decided to take the semester off to focus on my appointments and ongoing therapies. I plan to start online classes soon.

A part of my heart remains in Colorado. In September, I was able to participate in Craig’s virtual Pedal 4 Possible event to raise money for Craig programs. I pushed myself and was able to run three miles for the first time since my spinal stroke.

My welcoming committee

I graduated with my class!

Someday

I think if you asked me pre-stroke where I’d be in two years, the answer would be very different than what I’d say now. I don’t know what my future holds. But that’s a beautiful thing, the ability to be flexible and wait for it to unfold.

Someday I want to help people the way the nurses and therapists helped me. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I’m excited about the opportunity and the ability to find out.

-Abigail Howard


The excitement that Abigail feels about her future would not be possible without your help.

In this most challenging year, you showed up. You helped us provide innovative programs like the School Program, Therapeutic Recreation and Teen Rehab at Craig.

You made sure that our patients wouldn’t be ruined by the financial challenges resulting from catastrophic injuries.

You funded research that advances the field of spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation.

You helped veterans with brain injuries navigate the challenges of civilian life.

You provided vital rehabilitation equipment and ensured our facilities provide the best possible rehabilitation experience.

You attended events, volunteered and did so much more.

And when COVID-19 shutdowns began, you cared for our team of healthcare heroes, helped us launch telehealth services and helped our patients when the challenges kept piling on.

Because of you, we look to the future with excitement.

We are grateful.

Read the entire Craig Foundation Gratitude Report