When her brother told the visitors in her hospital room, "I have bad news. Helen will never walk again," Helen Grabowski laughed out loud. The 52-year-old suffers from cerebral palsy and has been confined to a wheelchair for years. She never expected to walk again.
But she also never expected to end up in Alegent Creighton Health Creighton University Medical Center's Trauma Center.
Last December, Grabowski went to the ATM she uses at the Bellevue Walmart to get some cash for her mother, who’s suffering from thyroid cancer. The machine was broken, so Grabowski was forced to cross South 15th Street and Cornhusker to get the money at a gas station. She was afraid of the traffic and asked three people for help. She said no one would escort her. She braved the busy intersection, withdrew the money and asked a stranger for help crossing back. Again the person she asked didn’t help. When the light signaled her to go, she started crossing in her wheelchair. "I didn’t want to do it." She said she wasn’t fast enough. The light changed and a driver plowed into her.
"I didn’t make it," she said, bursting into tears. "There wasn’t enough time." She could tell from the intense pain she was injured. "I thought I was going to die," she cried.
A rescue squad rushed Grabowski to Alegent Creighton Health Creighton University Medical Center. The trauma team gathered. Karl Bergmann, M.D., her orthopedic surgeon, found a broken left tibia and a broken right elbow. Unfortunately, her right arm was the only arm she’s able to use because of her cerebral palsy.
Dr. Bergmann said her case was very unusual: a woman in a wheelchair who is already battling cerebral palsy now had serious injuries as well. "The problem is her good arm is how she gets around. She may never be 100 percent where she was. But we’re trying to help her out as much as we can," he said.
Grabowski stayed positive during her hospital stay. "Luckily my spine is okay," she said. But she had moments when she was terrified. "I’m scared I won’t be independent like I used to be. I’m going to work hard so that I am."
Grabowski was a favorite on her CUMC hospital room floor because of that fierce independence. Before the accident, she was a freshman at Bellevue University and majored in communication arts, hoping one day to be an activist, helping people like herself. She was a stand-up comedian (she calls its sit-down comedy because of her wheelchair) and she’d written what she calls "funny love stories" where the main characters are handicapped.
She knew her focus after the accident would have to be on getting better, getting back in her wheelchair and getting back to school. "Lying in bed drives me nuts," she complained. She was glad to go home to start working on her mobility. That’s when Alegent Creighton Health at Home stepped in.
It’s part of the Alegent Creighton Health continuum of care that extends far beyond the walls of its hospitals and clinics and provides quality, comprehensive home healthcare services in the comfort and privacy of a home setting. Health at Home ranks in the top 25 percent of at-home providers nationwide.
Grabowski needed physical therapy and her physical therapist Anne Cannon quickly became a big fan, just like the nurses and physicians at CUMC. Cannon worked with her for a month. "In the beginning, she was in a lot of pain. She couldn’t tolerate sitting for very long," Cannon said. She had Grabowski slowly build up time sitting in her wheelchair, which had been fixed after the accident. The two did range of motion exercises on Helen’s left knee and right shoulder. "Every week another joint came back and Helen had more and more use of them," Cannon said. "Helen’s confidence took a hit at first" but then her patient regained her feistiness. "Soon she was back to laughing and joking. She loves jokes!"
Grabowski soon was able to use her one good arm again. "She’s able to bend it as far as she used to," Cannon said. She also made sure Grabowski had a special spoon that was easier to grip, so she could feed herself. Cannon’s only problem at the house was dealing with Grabowski’s very protective black cat, Spooky, who would hiss and occasionally take swipes at her.
"What I enjoy most is her spirit. She really has an indomitable spirit. She used to say, ‘I want to get back to what I used to do.’ And she did." Cannon’s job was done when Grabowski regained her mobility. "She felt confident she could leave the house to run errands again. She’s good as new. I expect to see her buzzing around Bellevue right now."
Grabowski said in spite of her progress, the last few months have been difficult. "I don’t know how I keep my spirits up. Maybe it’s God," she said.
She repeated something a friend told her after the accident: "There must be a reason why you’re still here," he told her. "You’re going to be something great." Cerebral palsy hasn’t stopped her; Grabowski says a bad car accident won’t either.