By Diana Lomont, Editorial Contributor
Jay and Dorrie Tackett had planned their bucket-list trip to Niagara Falls for months, plotting the route and stops for their motorcycle ride along the East Coast. Now their vacation was almost over and the couple would soon be home. After a full day of riding, it was starting to get dark as they neared their hometown of Polk City. Tackett, who had ridden motorcycles for decades, was traveling south on State Road 417 when the bike suddenly hit something on the pavement and crashed.
The next thing Tackett remembers is waking up in the emergency room of Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC). He had broken ribs and a broken collarbone. His lower back was fractured and his legs paralyzed. And then he learned that his wife, Dorrie — whom he had known since childhood — did not survive the accident.
“We were going to be home in 20 minutes and go about our everyday life. Everything changed in an instant,” recalls Tackett, age 59.
Because Tackett was taken to a Level One Trauma Center, a multidisciplinary team of surgeons was on-site to stabilize his life-threatening injuries, which included contusions to the lungs. Four days later, he was stable enough for the operating room. Six hours of surgery started with orthopedic specialist Dr. Kenneth Koval placing a metal plate in his chest to compensate for his shattered collarbone. Then, neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Hirschl realigned Tackett’s fractured vertebrae, fusing two metal rods to his lower spine. But Tackett’s spinal cord had been completely severed in his lower back, where the spinal cord nerves control lower body movement, and nothing could be done to regain the use of his legs.
Next, Tackett spent 13 weeks resting at a skilled nursing facility so his fractures could heal enough to bear his weight. He then returned to ORMC and began working with the Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute’s Spinal Cord Injury Program. The first few days were especially tough, recalls Tackett, who had lost 17 pounds of muscle mass during his recovery. At first, he had to rely on three staff members and a slide board to get him in and out of bed.
Four hours of physical and occupational therapy every day were exhausting, but after the first week he started noticing improvements. His appetite returned and he began interacting with team members who provided emotional support and encouragement. His rehab team included a neuropsychologist, a rehabilitation nurse and physical, occupational and recreational therapists.
“I worked with several different therapists, and I learned something from all of them,” says Tackett. “You have to retrain your brain to maneuver your body in different ways to do what you want it to do.”
Tackett worked on his balance and strength with physical therapist Ryann Cahill, PT, DPT, progressing to sitting in a chair and moving from his wheelchair to a bed or car with minimal to no assistance. Occupational therapist Cori Quigley, OTR, helped him relearn the basics of self-care, from brushing his teeth to showering and dressing. Tackett’s therapy also included leisurely community activities with recreational therapist Andrea Cooper, MS, CTRS, LRT. Their outings included lunch at a casual restaurant, a coffee trip and time at ORMC’s first-floor garden — all in an effort to re-integrate him into the community from a wheelchair.
Not all days were easy, and there were many hours of grieving. But Tackett didn’t feel alone for long. “When Ryan, the music therapist, began playing his guitar, the black hole went away,” recalls Tackett. “So many people here have been very caring and attentive. They take the time to listen and to just talk.”
After five weeks of rehabilitation, Tackett’s therapy team deemed him ready to return home — where he hadn’t been for months. Tackett will continue to build his strength and independent living skills through outpatient rehabilitation. And he’ll have a network of support through the Spinal Cord Injury Program.
Tackett’s progress was largely a result of his positive attitude, says his therapy team. “He works absolutely the hardest, and always goes above and beyond,” says physical therapist Cahill.
Patients with life-changing injuries do best when they continue to see purpose in their lives, says therapy manager Jose Dominguez. For Tackett, it was looking forward to returning to his job making eyeglasses, taking care of his horses and 12-acre farm, and continuing his hobby of restoring old motorcycles and cars.
“The Lord blessed me with my hands,” says Tackett. “My legs are gone, but I still have my hands. I just can’t walk, that’s all.”
To learn more about Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute, go to OrlandoHealth.com/RehabInstitute.