He was only 19, but Tommy Slattery had plans. He was working in his father’s plumbing and heating business, and was scheduled to start classes at Lehigh Carbon Community College that would further his knowledge and skills in that profession.
Energetic and athletic, the tall, handsome teen with a thick mop of dark hair that defies taming, Tommy played ice hockey and lacrosse, and loved snowboarding. He also loved to ride his motorcycle. And that’s where things went so wrong one warm August day in 2009. Tommy was on his motorcycle headed from his East Greenville home to his cousin’s house when he collided with a car filled with other teens his age. The motorcycle slammed into the car broadside, injuring several of the car’s occupants and propelling Tommy helplessly into the air followed by a merciless, bone-crunching landing on the hard pavement.
Tommy was rushed to the hospital with multiple injuries. He had a broken spine, two broken thigh bones, and his left thumb was amputated. For someone whose career plans would require two strong hands and a healthy body, this was a devastating setback. Fortunately, Tommy was wearing his helmet. A first scan of his brain looked like it had escaped injury. But shortly after emerging from surgery to reattach his severed thumb, Tommy’s blood pressure dropped and his brain began swelling.
Tommy was rushed into surgery again; this time to remove a section of his skull to alleviate the pressure in his brain.
“That was horrible,” says Renee Slattery, Tommy’s mother. “It was like a scene from a movie. We all sat and prayed and hoped. It felt like forever.”
Tommy spent three weeks on a ventilator and in a medically-induced coma at Lehigh Valley Hospital. No one knew what the outcome would be. He has youth on his side, Renee and her husband Tom were told. And he was strong.
When Tommy finally was brought out of his coma, Renee and Tom got some of the best news they’d had in a long time. Tommy, who then was completely dependent on others for his care, was going to be admitted to the brain injury unit at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown to begin his therapy.
“We were hoping for Good Shepherd,” says Renee. “That was the best news because we’ve always heard such good things about it.”
Over the next several weeks, Tommy went back and forth between Lehigh Valley and Good Shepherd as surgeons made two attempts to replace the section of skull that had been removed. Blood clots and severe headaches plagued Tommy’s recovery.
At Good Shepherd, a cohesive team of caregivers shared their expertise to get Tommy out of his wheelchair and functioning again. Recovering from his brain injury alone would require incredible dedication, patience and determination not only on Tommy’s part, but by his therapy team and his family. There was intense occupational and speech therapy. Physical therapy would challenge him as never before. And, he needed hand therapy to regain the use of his thumb that had been reattached.
Pain management with Dr. Chiraq Kalola at Good Shepherd’s Spine and Joint Center was also critical to the teen’s recovery. Broken vertebrae in Tommy’s back, and a large leg wound and searing nerve pain in his left leg made it excruciating just to stand. His fractured right leg served him no better.
“He could barely stand for 10 seconds,” Renee recalls. “He was screaming, it hurt so much.” Pool therapy was included in his rehabilitation program but the goal was to get him walking on his own.
After weeks of grueling therapy, Tommy’s caregivers got him to the point where he could go home and continue outpatient therapy.
“We went to therapy every day,” says Renee. “Rain, sleet or snow. It was important to keep going. He never complained.”
Angie DeEsch, one of Tommy’s physical therapists, recalls the complex challenges of Tommy’s case. “His walk was very limited because he couldn’t put weight on his left leg,” she says. “His cognition was greatly diminished too and he was still wearing a protective helmet. Overall, he was functioning at a pretty low level. Frankly, we weren’t sure he’d be able to walk without a significant limp or an aid of some sort, like a walker.”
Enter the Tibion Bionic Leg, a new rehabilitation technology that uses robotics to help patients regain movement and function sooner in a leg impacted by brain injury, stroke or spinal cord injury. In the spring of 2010, Good Shepherd became the first health-care organization in the country to use the Tibion in the inpatient and outpatient setting. For Tommy, the Tibion would make all the difference in his ultimate outcome.
“It was a great tool,” Angie says. “It gave him sensory feedback and he felt safer and more confident with walking. “We started doing higher level balance exercises like jumping and running, and going up and down stairs. It really helped get him away from his walker and transition to functioning more independently at home sooner.”
The robotic leg, which looks like something out of a science-fiction movie, provides sensor-based assistance and resistance to the affected leg to match the capabilities of the unaffected leg.
Sue Golden, director of neurorehabilitation at Good Shepherd, explains that the Tibion augmented Tommy’s strength and helped build him up by activating his muscles repeatedly in precisely the same way every time. “This type of consistency would be impossible with manual therapy alone,” Sue says.
For all who know him and what he’s been through, Tommy’s recovery is nothing short of remarkable. Now 21 years old, he went ice skating in January for the first time since the accident and got back to snowboarding, walking his dog, Tosh, working with his dad, and taking classes at Lehigh Carbon Community College.
“Never give up,” Tommy says. “I guess this made me stronger. I’m doing better in school and it made me realize not to take things for granted.”
As Tommy’s 16-year-old brother, Christopher says, “The old Tommy’s back.”
Only one thing has changed. Tommy’s motorcycle days are over. His ride these days? A Cadillac.
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