Physical therapy: progress in action

11:05:09 AM CDT - Thursday, April 07, 2005

By Shannon Littlejohn

Kathy Lewis is always telling her students what an uplifting profession physical therapy is. Recently, she had an opportunity to show them.

More than 28 PT hopefuls were captivated by a visit from Richard Meier, a man who defied predictions that he would never walk again, said Lewis, associate professor of physical therapy for the College of Health Professions.

"They fell in love with him, and he fell in love with them," she said. The experience not only moved the class, but touched Meier as he realized how much his presence impacted their learning experience both professionally and personally.

Richard Meier and Danielle Bohl
Photo by Kathy Lewis
Danielle Bohl, right, an alum of WSU's physical therapy program, visits with her patient Richard Meier, who was told he had little or no chance to walk or use a prosthesis. Working with Bohl, Meier, outfitted with a prosthesis, can do limited walking.
He was encouraged to visit the class by his physical therapist, Danielle Bohl, a 2002 graduate of the College of Health Professions program who lives and works in rural northwestern Kansas.

As Bohl reports, Meier's accident occurred on Sept. 28, 2000. The Mankato native was working the corn harvest near Holdridge, Neb. When the corn header became plugged, Meier crawled into the header to unplug it.

"The driver didn't realize Richard was up there," said Bohl. "He was showing the foreman how it worked and turned it on."

 Meier's hollering his right leg was caught up in the combine finally drew the man's attention and he shut the machinery off. But he panicked and turned it back on.

That's how Meier lost his left leg, said Bohl. Paramedics thought they might also have to take his right leg, but freed him with the jaws of life.

He was in the combine for an hour-and-a-half as the local emergency response team waited on paramedics to fly in from Kearney.

"He saved his own life when he told the local officials to leave him in there," said Bohl. He thought the pressure on his arteries from the steel trap he was in might keep him from bleeding to death. Once he was freed, he faced new pressure.

"They had to work very quickly to save his life," said Bohl. "He got somewhere around 16 units of blood."

Orthopedic surgeons told Meier he would never walk or be able to operate a prosthesis, Bohl said, and they were correct that the likelihood was slim, given the high hip amputation of his left leg and damage to right leg, which has since been through multiple surgeries.

Bohl met Meier in July 2004 when he came to the Jewell County Hospital in Mankato because of weakness and pain in his right leg. Then he began experiencing phantom pain in the missing leg. Various therapies weren't working well.

"I told him, 'you have the option to try a prosthesis. The chances of your being able to walk are slim but if it decreases the pain I think it would be worth it,'" said Bohl.

The choice was his, but she and a Hays orthotics professional thought it was worth a try. Meier decided to go for it, and by November he had his prosthesis.

Through others' encouragement and his own determination, Meier is making amazing progress by any measure, Bohl said.

"It's only been five months," she said, "and he's walking alone in his apartment with a cane, a quad cane, and a little bit, only a little bit, out in public with a walker."

The visit to WSU's College of Health Professions was good for him, she said. He was reluctant to do it at first, but did it for her as payback for the help she's given him. He not only instructed and inspired the students, but received a boost of encouragement and motivation from them.

Physical therapy students
Photo by Kathy Lewis
Physical therapy students, from left to right, Kristie Schneider, Natalie Heersch, Audrey Walters and Matt Elniff talk to Richard Meier, a Jewell County man who lost his leg in a farming accident and is undergoing physical therapy to regain his walking ability.
Lewis' students commented extensively about his courage and determination and their realization of how important those qualities and a good relationship with a physical therapist can be.

"We have more one-on-one time with our patients probably than any other health profession, except for select circumstances," said Lewis.

"He is wonderful; he's a very, very good man," Bohl said, with that achey throat sound that accompanies a welling up of tears. "I'm sorry to be so emotional; he's just done so well."

Lewis points out that, even with an artificial leg, a person with bilateral lower extremity amputations expends two-and-a-half times more energy to walk.

Her students' comments also included a sense of wonder at the positive thinking it would take to meet the challenges Meier faces.

"He fights depression and frustration every week," Bohl said, "and requires a lot of encouragement and reassurance. But if he did not have the drive and desire to be as independent as possible, he would not have been able to make the progress he has."

Besides working at the Mankato hospital, Bohl works for the North Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative (through the public school system), and for the Logan Manor and Solomon Valley Manor nursing homes.

"I do a lot of driving," she joked, but she loves her work in the high-need health-care setting of rural Kansas. She lives in Phillipsburg, her hometown, with her husband and her two small children.

Lewis, a Mankato native herself, remembers working long hours in the '70s when she started a first-of-its-kind PT assistant program at Colby Community College. There were only five services available at the time in the vast area that is northwest Kansas, she said, so she worked tirelessly.

"Being a physical therapist is a rewarding profession on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis," said Lewis. "I don't understand how anybody could be in the profession and feel down because invariably every patient you have has more problems than you do."

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