Susan’s story

Susan Back smiling

Meet Susan Back, a paralegal and finance manager who maintains a busy life balancing work and family responsibilities. Vacations weren’t an option until a life-changing event gave Susan a new perspective on life.

Coming home from work one Friday, she felt exhausted but “just kept pushing” to return to work the next day. However, after several days of struggling to breathe, she took her sister’s advice and went to the emergency room.

Susan had extensive testing at Lehigh Valley Hospital, including blood tests and x-rays that revealed she had acute respiratory failure with hypoxia – low levels or depleted oxygen in the body tissues – causing shortness of breath and extreme tiredness. She also had the flu, pneumonia and rapid atrial fibrillation (A-fib) – an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots in the heart. She was transferred to Kindred Hospital, intubated and placed on a ventilator to help her breathe.

Once stabilized, she was faced with various physical challenges. The loss of strength, endurance and balance from being bedridden rendered her unable to move, walk, or perform daily tasks on her own. “Once I got sick and was intubated, I woke up and it was almost like being paralyzed…It was frightening. When I came to Kindred, I was able to stand for maybe two seconds and that was with people right next to me,” she said.

Following a six-week hospital stay, Susan was discharged and admitted to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation – Chester for specialized inpatient rehabilitation. Her physician-led team of rehabilitation nurses, physical and occupational therapists and other specialists put a plan in place to help Susan reach her goal of walking and being “a little more functional, so I wasn’t having to depend on everybody for everything.”

Her physicians and rehabilitation nurses closely monitored her medical needs and provided wound care to the tracheostomy site to help prevent infection. Meanwhile, assessments were completed by her psychologist to help her cope with the challenges she faced and by her dietitian and nutritionist to meet her caloric and nutritional needs.

Susan benefitted from three hours of physical therapy daily, focusing on improving her balance, endurance and strength. She participated in gait training exercises, including marching, climbing stairs and walking with parallel bars. One of her therapists remembered she was initially anxious about climbing the stairs, but with the encouragement of her care team, she progressed to climbing 16 stairs with assistance and walking 300 feet with a rolling walker.

Referring to her therapist, Susan said, “She just kept encouraging me and held onto me for that first step…I like that you pushed enough to get me to do what I had to do to step up those stairs but didn’t try to do something I was not comfortable with.”

A big milestone came when Susan was able to take a step on her own. “The first time I took a step without holding on, I just wanted to cry in the gym out of sheer accomplishment,” she said, adding, “Accomplishments are shared throughout here. We see other patients doing really well and everyone is cheering them on as they go. That gives you encouragement to move forward.”

Her occupational therapists focused on fostering her independence by providing adaptive equipment and techniques to perform everyday tasks. Training sessions held in an Activities of Daily Living (ADL) Apartment, such as moving around the kitchen, simulated her home environment to help build her confidence and ensure a safe transition home. She progressed to completing all daily activities, such as getting in and out of bed, bathing and toileting independently with modifications.

Susan’s family was by her side throughout her recovery. Her husband participated in Kessler’s family education training to prepare for her return home.

After three weeks at Kessler, she looked forward to returning to work and daily life with less stress. “I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on life…I’m going to make life more what I want it to be. Enjoy my family more and make sure I get that vacation. A lot of priorities have changed.”

Susan credits her entire Kessler care team for her remarkable progress. “I cannot express how much I appreciate this whole staff here…The caring I felt from so many people here pushed me forward and gave me something I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else. This is the place that I would recommend for people to go and join in their rehabilitation and get home.”