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My Craig Story: Peter Cooke

Peter Cooke speaking to donors.

In 2019 I was living and working full time in South Florida. In March I went into surgery for a 4 level ACDF: anterior, cervical, decompression fusion. This procedure had been diagnosed and recommended by 4 different Doctors.

During the surgery, I sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury at level C3 while screwing in the support plates that hold the vertebrae in place to help the fusions take hold. All nerve functions stopped throughout my whole body. I ended up in an induced coma for four days where spinal cord injury protocols were administered

Upon awakening, I had almost no feeling or movement below the neck. I was in the ICU for 14 days. Once stabilized I was transferred to the general hospital. There I developed a life-threatening perforated bowel, thought to have been caused by the steroids and other drugs I had been given in the ICU. I underwent emergency surgery at 2 a.m. on a Saturday. The surgeon told my wife and me that my condition was so serious that we should say goodbye to each other just in case. I survived the surgery but lost part of my intestines and ended up with a colostomy.

I was also unable to swallow due to the nerve damage in my throat and a few days later a feeding tube was inserted. In the three weeks since the initial surgery, I had lost over 30 lbs.

Not too long after that, I was discharged to a rehab hospital in Florida. Four unproductive, frustrating, and demoralizing weeks went by and we were finally told that I was being discharged in a wheelchair requiring 24/7 care likely for the rest of my life.

My wife and children were not going to accept that prognosis and set out to find a place where I could be helped. Craig stood out amongst all the top hospitals in the country as you all know. In mid-May, they were contacted and in a couple of days a Craig representative met with us and told us that I had been accepted into the program. I was flown to Craig sedated, with a feeding tube, and multiple IVs. I was in pretty bad shape, physically and emotionally.

After getting up to my room we were surrounded by Craig staff examining me, encouraging me, and doing everything beyond belief to help me and my family. Craig was able to provide my wife and son an apartment on the campus so they could commit the full day to help my recovery. Just another way your support helps Craig families. Frankly, It was the first time we had any reason to be optimistic.

By then my family had virtually paused their own lives to help me. My wife of 45 years worked tirelessly on my behalf for months on end after the accident. She was by side 14 hours a day and was the rock that kept us all going. My daughter took on the Florida hospitals and the insurance company. My youngest son helped with Medicare and Disability since I’d been forced to retire earlier than we had expected. My oldest son took family leave to help us. He was at my bedside by 7 a.m. every morning to get me dressed, fed, and to all my appointments. He was there in the evenings to undress me and make sure I was ready for bed. My whole family was engaged in my care and encouraged me every step of the way. Craig fosters this kind of family participation and it cannot be underestimated. It helps the patient fight as well as empowers the family.

Shortly after arriving at Craig, I met with a mental health therapist. He helped me see past my present situation. He counseled me that I was grieving. Just like the loss of a loved one, I had lost the life I had known, and until I managed through that grieving I would never be able to recover to my full potential.

I recall the next couple of nights, staring up at the ceiling in my room thinking about grieving. Remember, even at that time I couldn’t move much. I had to be put into bed, dressed, undressed, bathed, fed through a tube, and have all my bodily wastes removed for me. It was humbling, to say the least and I spent several long nights wondering what would become of me.

Thanks to his counseling I finally put my fears behind me and I worked very hard in all my rehab programs. PT, OT, speech, psych, family education, pool therapy, the PEAK gym, specialized equipment, massage, dry needling, outdoor activities, adaptive therapies, and many more, some of which might not exist without your support.

I started slowly moving my legs, arms, and hands. My physical therapist pushed me with tasks and challenging tests but was always there to support and encourage me. Eventually, I began to make real progress. I had to teach myself every type of movement and task we all take for granted. Just scratching my nose was a herculean effort. With the help of a Craig speech pathologist, I worked on regaining my ability to talk properly and to swallow. I gained weight with proper nutrition and I was finally able to have the feeding tube removed.

I made it to the Locomat treadmill in the Peak Gym. I think I lasted a whopping 5min the first time I was so exhausted. Over the next few weeks, I started doing more time on the Lokomat eventually getting up to over 30 minutes. Soon after that I was given a walker and cleared to go anywhere inside or outside the campus, first with supervision and then in a week or so, on my own. I never imagined that walking around a couple of buildings on my own would feel like the most rewarding thing I had ever done in my life.

It was nearing time to go out on my own, a prospect that left me petrified. Craig had taught me everything I would need to be self-sufficient, but I still was nervous about leaving Craig’s support and I was apprehensive that I could make the transition. Seeing this, the Craig team worked with my insurance company and arranged for me to participate in outpatient care for two additional weeks. It turned out that this was just what I had needed. I continued to gain strength and confidence. I was walking miles around the neighborhood. I was paired with a therapy dog to walk with so that I could handle walking my own dog when I got home. They even put together a bicycle for me to try. Biking had been one of my favorite pastimes and I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to ride again. I was able to ride that day, I think to the amazement of my Therapist.

Four months and four hospitals later in mid-July 2019, I was able to walk out of Craig; 10 weeks after I had arrived with little or no hope. Craig simply saved my life. And they save lives every day.

I had my colostomy reversed successfully in September of 2019, but of course, there were complications that resulted in two more surgeries, another foot of my intestines lost, another three weeks in a hospital, and some loss of the progress I had made to date.

Over the last two years, my full-time job has been to continue my rehabilitation. I have two physical trainers, a therapist, OT, ride my bike, walk, get massage and acupuncture, and do my exercise programs daily. I manage my lingering restrictions and nerve damage with exercise and medication. I continue to make progress and improvement. While many say that there isn’t much more improvement I can expect, I refuse to accept that and I work very hard to continue my rehabilitation.

I now have the privilege of volunteering at Craig. I have worked in the 4th-floor gym where I did most of my own therapy and I help on the Lokomat in the PEAK gym. For me, the opportunity to give back to Craig is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. When your life is taken away from you, you are changed forever. Craig not only healed my body and mind, they simply made me a better person. My perspective at Craig is quite different now. When you are a patient you are focused on yourself. As a volunteer, it is rewarding to see patients improve over time each in their own way. I begin to see hope on the faces of patients and families where there was once only fear and devastation.

Your generosity to fund so many of these programs and to staff the hospital with the best and brightest people cannot be understated. Craig has built a culture of empowerment that helps each patient and family through very difficult times. Not everyone is as lucky as I have been and every outcome is different, but each patient leaves Craig better prepared to live their lives as fully as possible.

Thank you all, members of the Craig staff, Board of Directors, and especially our most appreciated contributors. I owe you all my life and there are no words to say how grateful I am for all you do. If I can ever do anything to help you help Craig just reach out to me, I want to do everything I can to give back.