• 64°

Church serves as family now

By Sarah Nagem
snagem@salisburypost.com
Grant Hinson, a member of Nazareth Community Church, lifts Britany
LaGasse out of her wheelchair and carries her to the edge of the pool.
Britany’s white robe billows as pastor Mike Shoaf holds her just above
the water’s surface, cradling her like a child in his arms. Her small
legs, made smaller by muscle atrophy, dangle under the water.
Shoaf says a few encouraging words, and Britany covers her mouth and
nose with a white handkerchief. Shoaf gently lowers her into the pool
at the East Rowan YMCA.
This is her baptism.
Since February, the church has played a big role in Britany’s life. She
was baptized June 1 as church members Lois and Larry Fowler ó who
Britany calls her adoptive family ó proudly stood by.
The Fowlers, both 67, met Britany shortly after she broke her neck in a
four-wheeler accident on May 29, 2005.
Lois heard about the accident through Britany’s neighbor at a church in
Salisbury. Larry read about it in the newspaper. They offered any help
they could to Britany and her mother, Rhonda LaGasse.
Lois gets emotional talking about Britany’s family. “Her mother was
precious,” Lois says.
Rhonda LaGasse died of a heart attack in September 2006. The Fowlers
remained a big part of Britany’s life. Recently, they started the
Britany LaGasse Fund through Nazareth Community Church in Rockwell. The
money, they say, will help meet Britany’s needs, both immediately and
long term.
Those needs are many, because if Britany is ever going to walk again ó
and she’s determined to ó she needs intense physical therapy.
A good chance
Britany has a better than 50-50 chance of “some limited walking,” says
Dr. Andrew Koman, an orthopedic surgeon at Wake Forest University
Baptist Medical Center.
Even so, that’s a better outlook than doctors originally gave Britany.
Just after the accident, doctors told her she might never walk again.
Koman, who performed Britany’s latest surgery June 3, is helping her
prepare for the kind of therapy she needs to strengthen her legs.
He released tendons in her right knee and hip so Britany can straighten
her leg. He also put pins in the toes on her right foot because they
had curled under.
The accident didn’t cause these medical problems. Britany was born with
deformities in her legs and feet, and the paralysis after the accident
allowed those deformities to return, Koman said. If it hadn’t been for
previous medical problems, the surgery earlier this month might not
have been necessary, Koman said.
But Koman hopes that surgery will pave the way for more mobility.
“With what we did with the right leg, we should be able to get her up
and moving,” he said.
If the surgery proves successful, Koman said he might perform the same
operation on Britany’s left leg. He will definitely straighten the toes
on her left foot.
After healing from the surgeries, Britany will be ready for more
physical therapy.
What she needs
To walk again, Koman says Britany will need to do strengthening and
range-of-motion exercises. She will need to re-learn to bend her knees,
not only for walking, but also for getting in and out of her
wheelchair. She will need tools to help her walk.
At the Brian Center, Britany has undergone some physical therapy,
mostly to increase the use of her arms. Therapists encouraged her to
stretch her hands and exercise the muscles in her arms. They helped her
put small pegs in holes to fine tune motor skills. They administered
electrical stimulation to her arms to jump start the nerves. “She did
progress well while she was on the therapy,” says Jill Talbert,
rehabilitation program manager at the center.
Now, Britany can lift her arms over her head. She demonstrates her
ability one evening when the Fowlers are visiting.
“You need to do that all day long,” Larry Fowler tells her. He wants
Britany to reach her full potential. And he wants to help her do it.
But Britany is convinced the physical therapy offered at the Brian
Center won’t be enough to help her walk again. Last summer, she spent
about a month at the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation. “At the end
of it, I was able to stand and take three steps on my own,” Britany
says. “When I came back here, I wasn’t able to have the intense therapy
anymore. I lost what I had gained.”
Back at the Brian Center, physical therapists continued to work with
her, Talbert says. A couple of months ago, she says, Britany could
stand for about 40 minutes with the assistance of a sling seat. But
Britany has at times refused physical therapy at the center. Talbert
says Britany might not have been seeing gains as quickly as she had
hoped.
“At one point I think she got frustrated with us,” Talbert says. Since
Britany has little mobility, the staff uses a wooden board to transfer
her from the bed to her wheelchair. Nurses slide the board under her
hips as she sits on the edge of the bed and guide her froward into the
seat of the wheelchair. The friction irritates her skin, Britany says.
If Britany strengthened her legs, she could help with the transfer to
and from the wheelchair. That requires a lot of arm strength too,
Talbert says.
Britany will need these skills ó whether she’s in a nursing home or
anywhere else. The Fowlers want Britany to return to Charlotte for more
physical therapy. Lois says the center is willing to accept her on a
short-term basis, as it did before, but staff there want Britany to
have a discharge plan.
That means they don’t want Britany to return to the sedentary life of a
nursing home where she might not continue to progress.
The fund established at Nazareth Community Church would help her avoid
that, the Fowlers say. Medicaid helps pay for Britany’s treatment, but
she wants to move into an apartment. “I want to be as normal as
possible,” she says.
But she would need 24-hour care, which is expensive. She would need
other things too, especially if Britany’s dream of attending
Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in the fall becomes a reality.
Britany has a manual wheelchair that she can’t push. She wants a
customized chair that she says would cost about $3,000.
“I really think that she could benefit from a different chair, modified
for her,” Talbert says.
Finding hope
Britany realizes that many people in her situation are cared for by
family. But that’s not an option for her. “It really is depressing
being in a nursing home,” she says.
The hardships keep piling up. Britany recently learned that her
grandmother’s cancer has spread to her brain. And Britany’s nearly
two-year relationship with a boy she met after the accident recently
came to an end.
But those realities aren’t stopping Britany.
The church has become a big part of her life. She plans to begin
teaching a Sunday school class.
After the accident, she had considered going to college to become a
teacher. Now she’s thinking about a career in pediatric medicine. The
accident has made her stronger, Britany says. She believes things
happen for a reason. And she’s determined to move forward with her
life.
“I wanted to still do something,” Britany says, “instead of wasting
away laying here.”

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