Her Longest Race
For 12 years, Patti O’Donnell was an Irish step dancer, schooled in the art of intricate foot and leg work, executed with razor-sharp precision. A gifted athlete, she ran track and cross-country, logging her best time for the 800-meter sprint (half a mile) at 2 minutes, 15 seconds.
Now, the steps she takes are slower and more cautious. By her side, her devoted service dog Raven, a black Labrador with a graying muzzle and deep, friendly bark, watches her every move with expression-filled eyes the color of liquid chocolate.
But with each step, and support from a wide range of services at Good Shepherd, the 46-year-old Bethlehem resident is affirming her independence over an accident where the forces of bad luck and bad timing converged to change her life in a single, horrifying instant.
It was 1992 and Patti was a vibrant young woman with a passion for life. Athletic and intelligent with a teaching background in biology, physics and chemistry, she was teaching science education methods at Kutztown University. She also was coaching the women’s cross-country and track teams at Lehigh University.
Five days after turning 29, Patti was just finishing indoor track practice when she paused to speak to a colleague. As she turned to leave, she felt “this burning thing” strike her right temple and skid diagonally downward across her face. It was a lacrosse ball traveling at 90 mph.
“It was like people say how it feels to be shot,” she says. “ … It whipped my head to the left. Evidently I was knocked out because I woke up on the floor a few feet farther away from where I’d been standing. I had no idea what happened to me. I just remember looking to my right and seeing a trail of blood. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t speak. Everybody was moving in slow motion.”
Patti was rushed to the emergency room of a local hospital, her face swollen and distorted. Many of her teeth were knocked loose. An X-ray revealed a broken nose. What weren’t diagnosed were skull fractures and a closed brain injury that would gradually rob her of life as she had known it.
In the months that followed, Patti’s health worsened. She suffered from migraine headaches. Her left eye swelled shut and remained that way for eight months. A neurologist diagnosed significant damage to a major sensory nerve on the left side of her face. “I used to be very bubbly with lots of energy,” Patti says. “After the injury, if I smiled or cried or anything, that nerve would shoot pain like crazy.”
Pain spread through her neck and upper shoulders, then down her arms into her hands and wrists. She had difficulty holding things with her left hand. The muscles in that arm became constricted. Spasms racked her body. Nightmares and depression plagued her and she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Instead of getting better over time, I got worse,” she says. “My body became hyper-sensitive to touch and my emotions were all over the place.”
Patti’s ability to think clearly, something she always prided herself on, started eroding. She had returned to teaching at Kutztown University — a job she adored — but skipped words when she read and forgot things. And so she stepped down from her post.
Four years later, after jumping over countless obstacles with insurance companies, Patti found her way to Good Shepherd’s pain management clinic. Recreational therapists Linda Bollinger and Allison Ghorm noticed how Patti’s symptoms were similar to those of someone suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). She was referred to Dr. Deborah Kimmel, a Good Shepherd physiatrist, who diagnosed TBI.
A nationally-renowned neurologist in Philadelphia also diagnosed Patti with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, also called chronic regional pain syndrome, and injury to her brachial plexus nerves, a network of nerves that sends signals from the spine to the shoulders, arms and hands.
Patti spent six weeks under Dr. Kimmel’s care doing cognitive rehabilitative therapy. For someone who once excelled at doing long division and calculus, her loss of mental acuity was devastating. “It was hard because when you have a brain injury, you don’t realize you’re not the same person,” she says.
Gradually, with the help of Good Shepherd’s therapists and caregivers, Patti, who at one point weighed only 90 pounds and was in a wheelchair, began gaining the strength and confidence to set goals for herself.
Her spirits were buoyed by recreational therapy because she finally was able to complete small projects. One of the first things she made was a small bench which she still uses to reach things in her kitchen. “They gave me hope because they found what I was good at so I could feel better about myself,” she says of the recreational therapy team.
She began working out in the warm-water therapy pool doing yoga-pilates and Ai Chi, which helped her core strength and balance. Watsu, a passive form of aquatic therapy, helped Patti reach a deep state of relaxation and decreased muscle tension as it increased her range of motion.
Cognitive therapy was another important tool in Patti’s recovery. “The therapist was so gentle, kind and patient,” Patti says. “You don’t get that a lot of places.”
Despite her many challenges, Patti was determined to complete her doctorate in education with the hope of teaching science education courses. Starting in 2005, she began working with Mary Jane Frick, program coordinator for the adaptive computer access program.
“When I first met with her, she could hardly talk,” Mary Jane says. “Her arms would get really sore and she would get so exhausted trying to type on the computer. She also had a hard time with her eyes. They were hyper-sensitive making it very difficult for her to visually concentrate for any length of time.”
Mary Jane worked with Patti to find the right computer software programs that she could use to write her dissertation. A voice recognition program called Dragon Naturally Speaking proved invaluable, transcribing Patti’s voice into the written word. Other programs providing visual and cognitive aid have also helped Patti continue her studies at Lehigh University and make huge progress towards her doctorate. She plans to graduate in May.
“We’re constantly tweaking things for her because technology is ever-evolving,” Mary Jane says. “She frequently says that without technology, there would be no future for her. She’s also been a blessing for all of us here at Good Shepherd. She’s a wonderful role model because she uses the technology to go out and tell stories and inspire others.”
Despite all she’s been through, Patti has kept her runner’s spirit.
“Get a goal. Get a passion,” she says. “Passion has kept me going. And, if I didn’t have so many good people working with and believing in me, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get this far in life. I look at this journey as the longest cross-country race I’ve ever been on, but I can see the finish line.”
Photo: Patti and her therapy dog Raven.