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Wichita teacher adapts to life after spinal stroke

Gaye Ruschen

The wheelchair ramp that extends from Gaye and Jim Ruschen’s garage into their southeast Wichita home is more functional than fancy.

But it has been both, as evidenced during their grandson Graham Ellis’ fourth birthday.

“We had a Hot Wheels party here because of that ramp,” Gaye says. “We tricked it out with racing flags and signs.”

That’s how Gaye, a 57-year-old gifted literature teacher at Central Christian Academy, and her family have adapted to milestone joys since their lives significantly changed on Oct. 25, 2015.

Around bedtime that Sunday evening, Gaye experienced severe back pain and collapsed in her living room. She sustained a stroke of the spinal cord that damaged its front portion and left her paralyzed from the waist down.

In early November, Gaye entered Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital in Wichita for six weeks of inpatient care and therapy. She returned home before Christmas, and came back to the hospital twice weekly through April for outpatient therapy sessions.

“That was the experience of a lifetime,” Gaye says. “The staff there is awesome.

“I haven’t had a lot of moments where I’ve been angry or broken down. But in those couple of instances, they were very encouraging.”

Team care, family focus

Reginald Fears, MD, who led Gaye’s care team, says the prognosis for motor skills recovery is unfavorable with the anterior cord syndrome she experienced. Yet the combination of Gaye’s strong personal faith, supportive family and dedicated physicians, nurses, therapists and other staff allowed her to address her new condition.

She frequently worked with physical therapist Erica Wallis during her hospital stay, while nurses like Sue Racchini assisted her with new challenges like managing her bowel and bladder functions and preventing pressure ulcers of her skin.

“It can be humbling, but Gaye was always very willing to try whatever we asked her to do,” Racchini says.

Gaye’s husband and three daughters frequently visited the hospital and her grandsons participated in therapy sessions.

The Ruschens celebrated Thanksgiving with their own dishes in the hospital’s cafeteria and held grandson Pierce Ellis’ first birthday party there.

“We are big proponents of family being involved in the recovery process,” says Dr. Fears, the Rehabilitation Hospital’s medica director. “We want the families to engage with us and see the progress of their loved ones, ask questions and be as educated as possible.”

Testing the limits

While the parameters of an active lifestyle changed for Gaye, she quickly adjusted. Within days of her hospital release, she attended a movie and Wichita State University basketball game. Other activities followed, all showing her the possibilities and challenges people in wheelchairs face when venturing from home.

During the last week of December, family and friends gathered to replace carpet on the main floor of the Ruschens’ ranch-style home with laminate wood flooring to improve Gaye’s mobility.

She plans to return to work in a part-time role at Central Christian in August. The outpouring of love and support from teachers and past and present students fueled an already strong desire.

“I am not one of those people who sits and looks out the window much,” Gaye says.