HOME AT LAST
By ANDREW MCGINN
Adam Brubaker didn’t end up in a wheelchair because he dove headfirst into a shallow lake.
He wasn’t thrown off a horse.
He wasn’t the victim of a car crash.
On the contrary, Adam Brubaker is a quadriplegic because he coughed while playing a video game.
“I never would have guessed in a million years that this would be a part of my life,” Adam, 39, confessed Friday, sitting in the motorized wheelchair he now has to learn to maneuver through the house on Vest Street he shares with his wife and their two kids.
The six and a half months of therapy he underwent in Nebraska before finally arriving back home in Jefferson last week built up enough strength in his right hand for him to control the chair himself.
And, once a gamer always a gamer — he took to the chair’s joystick probably faster than most.
Still, less than 24 hours after his homecoming, it was abundantly clear that motoring around a hospital is one thing.
A ranch-style house is another.
“I already split the trim this morning,” Adam said, explaining how he tried backing out of the bedroom.
What put the lifelong Greene County resident in a wheelchair three days before New Year’s Eve — his urine now draining into a bag between his legs — might be easier to comprehend if it doubled as a cautionary tale.
Instead, what’s to blame usually resolves on its own or with the aid of some cortisone most often within six weeks, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
A herniated disk is one of the most common causes of neck and back pain.
Disks are essentially cushions between the vertebrae — the 33 stacked bones forming the spinal column — that act as shock absorbers.
A slipped one can press on nerves.
In this instance, though, a slipped disk in Adam’s neck compressed his entire spinal cord.
“The vast majority just cause nuisance pain,” said Dr. Paul Krabbenhoft, medical director of the spinal cord injury program at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals in Lincoln, Neb., where Adam underwent therapy from Jan. 5 to March 15.
However, paralysis from a herniated disk isn’t as rare as it sounds.
“We get many of these every year,” Krabbenhoft said.
Whether the paralysis is permanent, though, remains to be seen.
He tells patients there is a two-year window of opportunity for improvement.
“Every spinal cord injury is different,” he said. “It’s just a question of time and the extent those nerves were damaged by the pressure.”
It began harmlessly enough, with a stiff neck the day after Thanksgiving.
“I thought I just slept weird,” Adam said, “no big deal.”
The pain radiating up his neck and down his shoulder worsened.
He’d suffered a minor herniation before, three or four years ago, that was resolved with a trigger-point injection. He figured this was more of the same, and on Dec. 19, scheduled another round of anti-inflammatories.
On the afternoon of Dec. 27, Adam was home alone at the computer playing a video game.
“I coughed,” he explained, “and went from virtually no pain to a level nine or 10 pain in an instant.”
By the time he was being prepped for emergency surgery the morning of Dec. 28 at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines to fuse his C4 and C5 vertebrae, Adam could feel nothing below the neck — a freakishly rapid onset of paralysis that first affected the left side of his body.
The surgeon that morning didn’t mince words: Surgery wasn’t guaranteed to reverse the paralysis.
“At that point,” Adam said, “I was scared. It was tough when just half of my body wasn’t functioning. When my whole body wasn’t functioning, it was almost too much to take.”
“It was very real this could be our new reality,” said Lacy Follett-Brubaker, Adam’s wife of 10 years.
A chiropractor with her own practice and a paramedic for Greene County EMS, Lacy initially thought her husband might have suffered a stroke.
He found it difficult to hold the burgers she made for supper. His left foot was beginning to drag.
A trip to the ER ruled out a stroke.
Then came the call.
Adam had been sleeping on the living room couch when he woke to pee.
That’s when he realized he couldn’t walk to the bathroom.
He reached for his cellphone and called his wife in the nearby bedroom.
With Lacy supporting the left side of his 6-foot-2-inch frame, they together managed to make it into the bathroom.
Only now he couldn’t physically relieve himself.
Something was terribly wrong.
“Thank God the bladder is elastic,” Adam said of the ensuing ride to the ER in Ames.
That would be the last night Adam would spend at home for more than six months.
An ICU nurse of 20 years at Methodist observed that she’d never before seen a person go from the onset of symptoms to near-total paralysis as fast as Adam.
A Rippey native and a 1996 graduate of East Greene High School, he turned 39 shortly after surgery.
He’ll probably always remember his 10-year wedding anniversary on March 24 as coinciding with his move from Madonna in Lincoln to QLI in Omaha, a center specializing in brain and spinal cord injuries.
“When I was at Madonna,” he explained, “I did plenty of crying and playing the ‘what if’ game.”
That eventually gave way to resolve.
“I knew I just couldn’t continue to dwell on it,” he said. “I knew I had to be strong and move on.”
For one, he wasn’t in it alone.
“I told him we’d just hook him up like Stephen Hawking,” Lacy joked.
Even in the face of more than a few trying moments, “His sense of humor was never lost,” she said.
More than six months later, Adam still can’t walk but has regained limited mobility in his arms — enough progress to warrant a minor debate whether he qualifies as a quadriplegic or a paraplegic.
“I’m technically a quadriplegic. Technically,” he said, looking to Lacy. “Technically, I’m quadriplegic, right?”
“No,” she answered, “because you’re moving your arms.”
Before his ordeal, Adam worked for nearly 14 years in IT for Athene, a West Des Moines-based annuity company.
So far, according to Lacy, about $600,000 has been billed to insurance in just the past six months.
In between trips to Lincoln and Omaha, she did her best to keep her practice going and see that their kids — 15-year-old Julia and 9-year-old Jacob — were able to continue leading somewhat normal lives with school.
“What a long road this has been,” she said.
Habitat for Humanity assisted in April by pouring a new sidewalk and building a wheelchair ramp to their front door.
Lacy saved money where she could by gutting and modifying the bathroom with help from family and friends.
“I don’t know if I want to publicly admit this,” she said, “but we were without a shower in this house for three months and 10 days.”
Previously, the entry to the bathroom was only 24 inches wide, she said.
Adam’s wheelchair is 28 inches wide.
Just getting out of bed — which now requires a lift — and showering that first morning home Friday took two hours.
“What a day,” Lacy remarked.
“It’s just begun,” replied a nurse from QLI who accompanied Adam home the first night.
They’re determined to make this new reality only temporary.
For the past month, he’s been able to move the big toe on his right foot.
“He’s determined to walk again,” Lacy said.
Unbelievably, against all odds, Adam’s mom, Claudia Brubaker, again finds herself watching as a wife cares for a paralyzed husband.
Her father, Kenneth Stofer, was paralyzed from the shoulders down following an auto accident on Highway 4 in May 1975.
She watched her mother take care of him for the next 19½ years.
“I never thought it would happen again,” Claudia said Friday, sitting at Adam’s kitchen table.
Times have changed, there’s no doubt.
Adam remembers well his grandpa’s wheelchair.
“This thing’s like a Lamborghini compared to what he had,” Adam said.
Adam also will be using virtual reality at home — playing video games with it — to aid in the rehabilitation of his arms.
In the meantime, Lacy has resigned herself to the fact that her husband might be good with a joystick, but with a bedroom hallway that narrow, accidents are bound to happen.
What’s most important is that they’re in it together.
“He’s going to tear stuff up,” she said, “and I’ll fix it.”