For 20 years, Donald Van Fossen, a retired truck driver and volunteer firefighter, relished his role playing Santa in the local fire department’s annual holiday ride through town. He enjoyed waving to the children and spreading a little joy to the community – until that one rainy evening when he slipped and fell off the truck. His leg was caught on a metal bracket and he narrowly missed being run over. The 73-year-old sustained multiple fractures to his leg and a life-threatening degloving injury in which the skin and tissue were torn from the underlying muscle and bone.
Donald was rushed to St. Luke’s Regional Trauma Center where he underwent nine surgeries to save his leg. Complications, including infection, ensued and a wound vac was placed. He was beginning his rehabilitation when a blood clot triggered a stroke. Once stabilized, Donald was transferred to Kessler Institute – Chester, seeking to overcome a range of physical, functional, cognitive and vision challenges.
“All I wanted to do was get back on my feet and be able to walk. It’s hard to explain how much you miss the ability to get around ... to be independent,” recalled Donald.
Working with Kessler’s team of rehabilitation specialists, Donald focused on rebuilding his strength and balance. His doctors and nurses managed his medical needs, including tending to the wound on his leg, while his physical therapists helped him gain the skills to safely progress from a wheelchair to standing to eventually using a walker and minimize his fall risk.
In occupational therapy, Donald was taught the skills and strategies to successfully perform daily activities. He did math exercises to sharpen his cognition and learned to write things down to help with memory issues, a technique he feels will help him the rest of his life. “I have 12 grandkids and can remember their names, but I now keep a little notebook with their birthdays and other important stuff,” he said.
Donald also had vision difficulties, a condition called homonymous hemianopsia, that limited his field of vision. His occupational therapists provided specialized treatment to improve his visual field and introduced a number of techniques to help him move about and manage tasks safely.
In speech therapy, Donald improved both his vocal abilities and memory though a series of increasingly difficult exercises. For example, he recalled that speech therapist would read a long line to and he would have to repeat it back to her. “It was hard at first, but then when I did it, I surprised myself!”
Donald’s wife participated in special family training sessions to be able to assist him with transfers and daily activities at home. Her support and that of their large family and friends proved to be a big factor in his recovery. “They kept me going,” he said. “I would have been lost without them.”
As his leg continued to heal, Donald planned to continue his recovery as an outpatient, hoping to soon be able to walk without assistance. He advises other to “keep your mind open to new ideas. You’re never too old – or too young – to learn new ways of doing things. And thanks to Kessler, I’ve learned a lot.”