With back pain, numbness in both legs, and an inability to fully lift his feet, 37-year-old Jason Ortiz knew something was amiss. His primary care physician agreed, referring him to the emergency department at Hackensack University Medical Center. There, an MRI revealed lumbar stenosis, or narrowing, in the vertebrae of his lower spine, which pressed on the cauda equina – a cluster of nerves at the end of the spinal cord named for its resemblance to a horse’s tail. Diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome (CES), a rare and severe spinal cord injury that can lead to permanent debilitation, Jason underwent a two-part laminectomy surgery to widen the spinal canal and alleviate the pressure.
After his hospital stay, the father of two recalled, “I was unable to stand, unable to walk, unable to sleep secondary to pain, unable to lift my legs and unable to perform my daily activities.” Relying on research and his family, he chose Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation – Saddle Brook for his rehabilitation. “It’s a well-known hospital and recommended by my grandmother, who praised her experience at Kessler.”
When the team at Kessler's widely recognized spinal cord rehabilitation program asked about his goals, Jason expressed his desire “to be able to stand, walk, get up the stairs and walk to the bathroom from my bed.” Guided by Jason’s wants and needs, the physician-led team carefully integrated medical, nursing, therapy and specialized services into a highly individualized treatment plan.
He steadily made progress. “My rehab team listened and we worked as a team in a safe environment to allow me to reach my goals,” he said. As his physical therapists focused on rebuilding his strength, stamina and mobility, his occupational therapists helped with strategies and modifications to perform his self-care and daily routines.
A significant milestone in Jason’s recovery was literally a step: “Walking using the ARJO gait training device. It felt so good to be able to walk again and gave me hope.” He knew he had turned a corner “when we removed the support straps on the ARJO, as it demonstrated increased independence with walking.” He was similarly encouraged by mastering the heavy-duty rolling walker in his room, with assistance, to get to and from the bathroom.
Jason’s family also played a pivotal role in his rehabilitation. “My wife attended care partner training at Kessler and also provided support for me during my recovery.”
As the accountant with two young sons prepared for his discharge, he shared, “I am most looking forward to seeing my children and being in my own home. I am continuing my rehabilitation with home therapy services and then transitioning to outpatient physical therapy.”
Looking back on his time at Kessler, Jason remarked, “My experience was great. The staff was very accommodating. The therapy staff was top-notch. At first, it was very difficult, but it is amazing to see how far I have come.”
He also learned something great about himself: “I am mentally strong. This experience definitely put me to the test.”
To other individuals and their families facing challenges like his, he advised, “Listen to the therapists, trust the process, and eventually if you work hard you will reach your goals.”