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Strong marriage, physical rehab help couple fight multiple sclerosis

Rebecca Power

What started as tingling and numbness in her feet in late 2015 had robbed Rebecca Power of her independence within months.

“She started the year in high heels and now she’s in a wheelchair and diagnosed as paraplegic,” says Chris, Rebecca’s husband of 13 years.

The numbness started to go up my whole body,” recalls Rebecca, who worked as an ophthalmic technician for an eye surgeon.

The 44-year-old Wichitan had difficulty walking and balancing. She couldn’t feel her body or positioning and worried she would fall off stools at work.

At her neurologist’s recommendation, she stopped driving when she had trouble sensing the pedals and how hard she pressed them.

A diagnosis

On Feb. 1, 2016, she had a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, or MS, an unpredictable, often disabling disease where the immune system attacks the brain, spine and nerves. Lesions form causing flare-ups, or exacerbations, which is when strength and mobility problems, for example, get dramatically worse. When an exacerbation hit Rebecca in July, she was hospitalized.

“She didn’t have the strength to put her glasses on,” Chris says.

While there, Rebecca was evaluated by Erica Wallis, a physical therapist with Ascension Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital in Wichita, who recommended she continue recovery in an acute inpatient rehabilitation setting.

“There was no way she would have been safe or able to function at home independently, and I didn’t know how to help care for her,” Chris recalls of the couple’s decision to transfer to Via Christi.

Rebecca was still extremely weak, yet she and Chris were reassured knowing that her rehab team was experienced in helping patients with neurological diagnoses including MS, stroke, traumatic brain injury and Guillain-Barré syndrome. As nursing staff showed Rebecca new ways to care for herself, physical and occupational therapists helped her regain strength and function. Wallis, for example, taught her how to safely use a walker and to transition to and from bed, the restroom and the shower.

“They all completely embraced Chris and me,” says Rebecca of her 10-day stay. “They showed so much kindness and compassion. Their goal was for both of us to succeed.”

Encouraged by her daily improvements, the couple was comforted by the staff’s caring touch, skill and professionalism.

“Everyone at the Rehab Hospital truly feels like family,” Chris says. “I’ve never seen such values infused through an organization before.”

They say “the missing piece of this whole puzzle” was medical director Reginald Fears, MD.

“MS impacts the whole body, so having a physiatrist whose specialty is function to coordinate Rebecca’s care was wonderful,” Chris says. “He made sure we had the tools, capacities and resources to help her be as independent and active as possible.”

Rebecca learned and practiced adaptations and energy-conserving movements to safely maximize her mobility and to continue passions such as cooking.

“She’s probably one of the most motivated people I’ve taken care of in rehab,” says Dr. Fears. When she discharged home, she was able to walk short distances with a walker, he adds.

‘We’ve got this’

Rebecca digressed considerably from another exacerbation and was readmitted to the Rehab Hospital in September.

“We reset our baselines and expectations and started learning processes to address new challenges,” Chris says of new symptoms that included swallowing problems.

Rebecca no longer works, but she remains busy with Rehab Hospital outpatient therapy and other appointments. She breaks up tasks and errands with rest and keeps company with their cats Pugsley, Wednesday and Gomez. She recently supervised home-accessibility renovations and she practices speech and cognitive exercises.

“I’m just trying to be as good as I can be,” she says.

Painting with acrylics has become a significant hobby, too. “I don’t know if I’m good at it, but I’m having fun,” she says, smiling.

Rebecca says she draws strength from knowing her husband is her solid foundation. He says they are ready for whatever challenges come.

“We know there are going to be ups and downs but the bottom line is, together we’ve got this,” Chris says.

About Melissa Lacey

Kansas born; mother of two; communications professional for Ascension Via Christi.