A Wish to Walk Again: A True Story About a Remarkable Ongoing RecoveryMarch 19, 2021
By: Cathy Ackerman
As read in Bismarck Tribune’s Well-Being Section, March 2021
Over the years, I have had a lot of issues with my health and was diagnosed with degenerative disk disease. I have had five surgeries on my spine (with cages and hardware) along with double knee and double hip replacements. My most recent issues started in June 2019. As I stepped out of the shower, my leg gave out and I fell backwards causing the lower part of my back to slam into the faucet. This caused major pain in my lower back, which was concerning due to prior surgeries on my spine.
The pain got increasingly worse as time went on. I visited a pain management clinic, did physical therapy, and received an epidural in my lower spine. Nothing seemed to help. Eventually, my only option was another surgery. At the end of January 2020, I was scheduled for my sixth spinal surgery. Surgery went well, but gradually after a couple weeks, the pain kept getting worse. I called the surgeon every few days but kept being told that it will just take time to heal and things will improve. But I knew something was not right. One morning, I woke up and discovered I was not able to get out of bed, no matter how hard I tried. I had to call an ambulance to take me to the ER. The x-rays showed the spine above the new hardware was compressing and I was admitted into the hospital for more tests. When I was released from the hospital, I was given a back brace. The doctors were hoping this would support my back enough to prevent further compression of the bones in my spine while I healed.
A couple weeks later at my follow-up appointment with the surgeon, the x-rays showed the spine above the new hardware was compressing more. I was admitted to the hospital right away. A second surgery followed 8 weeks after the first to add cement into my bones to strengthen the spine where the hardware was placed. Even more hardware was added further up my spine.
A few weeks after being discharged from the hospital, my legs began feeling weak. Soon my legs gave out completely and I was unable to get up on my own. An ambulance took me to the ER. Once again, the x-rays showed compression in the spine above my last surgery. I found out I would need a third surgery to add more cement and hardware. Following that third surgery in a span of 14 weeks, I was left paralyzed from the waist down. I now had an incision and hardware in my spine that ran the length of my back. I was unable to sit up on my own and had to wear a TLSO (Thoracic Lumbar Sacral Orthosis) brace any time I was not lying in bed.
I was going to need special care, so I was advised to pick a nursing home. I chose Benedictine Living Community -Bismarck in May 2020 and was very fortunate they had an in-house therapy/rehabilitation team. I was so angry at the world! Why did this happen to me? With the help of the Occupational, Physical, and Speech Therapists, my attitude changed. I knew if I wanted to beat this, I would need a positive attitude and faith in God. I had a lot of people praying for me and am so grateful for the abundance of support from my family and friends.
Therapy began with me lying in bed. The therapists had me try to move my feet and touch them together. In my head they were touching but they actually weren’t.
After a couple weeks, they transported me with a wheelchair to the therapy gym. When hooked up to the Active Trainer (a sling that attaches and supports patients in standing), I was able to practice standing at the parallel bars. In less than 2 weeks of therapy, I was able to stand for 42 seconds. That is when I knew I would be able to walk again! The next day I wheeled myself to therapy and was able to stand for more than one minute. The length of time I could stand increased each day. My next goal was to gain more control of my feet. I could get them together and was feeling more control over my knees and hips. Within a month of therapy, I stood for eight minutes. I was exhausted but I was doing it! During therapy, I started using the NuStep recumbent exercise machine and was able to go for 10 minutes. A lot of pain followed the day after therapy sessions where I tried new things and worked my body hard, but I was not about to give up!
It was time for my first post-op appointment following the third surgery. The excitement I felt about how well I was doing quickly diminished with the surgeon’s comments. He said I would never be able to walk again, never be able to drive again, and never be able to live independently. I was so hurt and disappointed. Some people would have given up at that point but luckily I was already determined to prove him wrong.
“Cathy has been involved in SLP therapy as well through this journey to recovery. She is working on ways to plan ahead and anticipate hazards so she can possibly avoid further falls and injury!” – Kris Cleary, Speech Language Pathologist at Benedictine-Bismarck
I had two hours of therapy each day, which consisted of Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapy. Every day the therapists worked hard with me on standing, sitting and balance control. They let me use a power wheelchair that was donated to Benedictine-Bismarck. This was so nice and allowed me to feel a bit more independent. I continued to use the parallel bars to work on controlling my feet to walk. Finally, I took my first step using the bars. Everyone was so excited for me! I was able to take more and more steps with each passing day. I started getting monthly injections to strengthen my bones. Each day I worked with the parallel bars, used the NuStep, and eventually walked with a walker. Things were improving a little each day. I continued getting stronger and stronger. It was time to try to walk on my own without the Active Trainer or parallel bars for support. This took three therapists: one walked beside me holding on to my gait belt, one watched my legs taking steps, and one walked behind me with a chair in case I needed support. I felt confident I could do it and I did!
“Cathy’s strength in character, perseverance, and hard work continue to help her stride forward both physically and cognitively. Her ‘never give up’ attitude is contagious, and her heart is genuine.” – Carrie Axt, Speech Language Pathologist at Benedictine-Bismarck
My next goal was to reside at the Assisted Living community on the other side of the building and be more independent. To do this, I needed to be able to dress myself and transport myself from chair, to bed, to bathroom. I continued to work hard, and in November, the staff, therapists, and I felt that I was ready to move from Skilled Nursing to Assisted Living. I still continue with therapy, working with the same therapists two days a week. For Christmas, I was determined to go to the house of my daughter Julie, son-in-law Toby, and granddaughter Megan. I knew that I had to be able to do stairs before I could even dream about visiting them. So in therapy, I started working on going up and down steps. After much hard work, I was able to go to my daughter’s. It was wonderful, and the first time I was at their house in over a year.
I am now mostly using my walker rather than the power wheelchair, and am starting to learn how to walk with a cane. I continue to work hard every day as I have new goals of getting a bigger apartment, driving a car, and vacationing to Oregon to see my sisters. What keeps me going is determination, a good attitude, and faith in my therapists since they seem to know me even better than I know myself. I am so grateful for the amazing therapy staff at Benedictine-Bismarck. Without them, I am confident I would not be as far as I am today!
“Cathy is definitely a success story at BLC of Bismarck. She has come so far and is very determined. Cathy was very motivated and she never questioned us. She trusted us and our sessions. She always gave it her all. While we were walking Cathy was getting tired and she verbalized under her breath numerous times her frustrations for her surgeons and doctors, determined to prove them wrong. As therapy progressed we were working on dressing, toilet, pivoting with front wheel walker then walking with a front wheel walker. She has a goal of getting back to community living and I believe she will do it. She still amazes me every time I see her. We love you Cathy.” – Chelsie Boeshans, Occupational Therapist at