Life is sweet again for Michelle Eudy after devastating spinal cord injury
By Katie Scarvey
A couple of years ago, life was sweet for Michelle Gobble Eudy. She and her boyfriend, emergency medicine physician Dr. Joe Degulis, took fabulous trips together to places like Egypt and Vietnam. An emergency department nurse for 10 years at Rowan Regional Medical Center, she had moved with Joe from her home in Rockwell to West Palm Beach, Fla., and was just finishing her physician assistant certification. She was preparing to start her new career at a Florida hospital.
“I had everything in the world,” she says.
A stack of wood changed her life forever.
She was decorating for Christmas before Thanksgiving in 2006 when she learned that her next-door neighbor was getting rid of a large pile of plywood sheets he had used as hurricane shutters. Michelle thought one would be perfect as a table for her nativity scene.
As her neighbor began pulling out a piece from the middle, the sheets on top began sliding, creating an avalanche of wood.
“I couldn’t get out in time,” she says.
Michelle collapsed under a ton of plywood.
“I knew I was paralyzed,” she says. “I could not feel my legs. I kept saying to my neighbor, who was buried with me under the plywood, ‘I am going to die’ and started saying my goodbyes to him.”
The accident “bent me completely,” she said. “My head was in my lap. It broke my pelvis on both sides, ripped it all to pieces.”
The next thing she remembers is seeing her parents, Sue Baumgartner and Don Gobble, as she woke up three days later in a Florida trauma hospital.
Her injuries were devastating. She had a severe pelvic fracture, and her back was broken at the L-3 and L-4 vertebrae, causing paralysis from the waist down.
The vertebrae were actually rotated out of the spinal column, and a piece of her spinal cord came close to piercing her aorta, she says.
“It’s a miracle I’m alive,” she says.
When Joe came into the intensive care unit to see her, he noticed an X-ray in the view box in the hall.
“I thought, holy cow, how can anyone survive that?” he says.
He didn’t realize at the time that he was looking at Michelle’s film.
After speaking to the neurosurgeon, Joe realized just how bad Michelle’s injury was. No one who’s had anything to do with Michelle’s care has ever seen that kind of injury, which could be one for the medical textbooks, Joe says.
Joe felt that it was unlikely she would walk again ó but he also believed that if anyone could recover, it would be Michelle, “one of the most stubborn Southern belle blondes you’ve ever seen.”
“Do the best you ever did and she’ll make you look good,” Joe told the surgeon.
Doctors were prepared for a 17-hour surgery to place rods from the L3-L5 lumbar vertebrae in Michelle’s spine to correct the alignment as much as they could. Things went much better than expected, with the surgery taking only 3 hours.
A week and a half after the accident, Michelle flew by commercial jet to Charlotte to be transferred to Forsyth Medical Center. Facing months in a body cast, her early days at Whitaker Rehabilitation Center were filled with fear and uncertainty.
“When I first went to rehab, I did nothing but cry,” she says. It was hard to accept being in a wheelchair, catheterized, having to wear a diaper, not being able to wiggle her toes.
Still she made goals for herself. At Christmas, Joe proposed to her. She decided that she wanted to be able to stand to get married ó without assistive devices.
She made strides quickly. By March of 2007, she was out of her wheelchair and using a walker. She moved in with her father and began outpatient rehabilitation in Mocksville.
In July, she returned to Florida and continued rehabilitation with a private therapist. She and Joe decided that being close to family and supportive friends was important to her ó and to her recovery ó so they bought a house on High Rock Lake and set a date for the wedding: May 24.
Joe continued to work and Michelle focused on her rehab with Shannon Kimel and Angelia Wood at the Martinat Outpatient Center for Rehabilitation in Mocksville, part of Forsyth Medical Center.
Shannon, her physical therapist, says that Michelle is the kind of patient who motivates other patients when she’s in the room. Determined and upbeat, Michelle “never sees the bad in the situation,” Shannon says.
“She’s really touched a lot of people’s lives in the clinic,” even among the professional staff, Shannon says. “She’s very motivating to all she meets.”
Michelle, 41, feels her recovery has been miraculous. She has gotten back bladder control. She has strengthened the muscles in her legs to the point where she can walk on her own now, with a cane. She can walk up and down stairs.
And last month, without a cane or a walker, she walked up the hill at her lake home with only her father’s arm for support to get married to the man who had stuck with her during the toughest time in her life.
Her walk, she says, was not particularly graceful. Because of the injuries to her pelvis, she says, she does a “dippity do” when she walks.
But nobody cared about the “dippity do.”
Michelle was walking.
Shannon and Angelia were there to celebrate with her.
“It was very emotional to be able to see her live one of her dreams,” Shannon says.
Michelle still isn’t back to normal. She does not have feeling below her knees. Repairing the nerve damage could take years, she says.
Dealing with pain in her pelvis and back since starting outpatient rehabilitation has been challenging. She battles neuropathy ó burning and stinging sensations in her legs that often keep her awake at night. No one has an explanation for that, she says.
“That’s the frustrating thing. Nobody can give you an answer. They can’t predict what will happen.”
She doesn’t mind fighting the pain as long as her condition steadily improves. Her neurologist told her recently that she could continue to improve for two or three years, and that she has the potential to “get everything back,” according to Joe.
Joe, Michelle says, has been incredibly supportive. They’ve been together for 10 years now.
“He could have left me, but he stayed and was a trouper through it all. He’s walked a long walk with me.”
Michelle still marvels at how far she’s come.
Last week, she got hand controls put on her car to enable her to drive. Every new bit of independence is a sweet victory.
She’s gotten used to the idea that everything takes longer to do. People want to assist her in her daily tasks, but it’s important to her to do things independently.
“Even though it takes me an hour, I need to do it,” she says.
“I can’t believe how I’ve come through this,” she says. “I did it through the grace of God and my family and friends. I probably had every church in Salisbury praying for me.”
As long as she continues to make progress, she’ll continue therapy three days a week.
“She has never stopped working hard, looking ahead,” Joe says, “with the goal from day one that she was going to beat it.”
Michelle says simply that she learns as she goes.
“You just figure it out,” she says.
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