Earlier this year, Karen Borden, 48, thought she had come to her end. "That's it. I'm never going to walk again," she remembers thinking. "I couldn't move my left side. I couldn't see." What came on as a sudden, thunderous headache sent her to a hospital. There, doctors told her that her brain was bleeding. Then she had a stroke. Like many people who enter Florida Hospital Tampa for rehabilitation, she was devastated. But last week, Borden and about 50 other former patients of the hospital's Comprehensive Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit came back for a reunion lunch, where they shared their various stories of success.
About 600 patients come through the unit's 30 beds each year. They have survived car accidents, gunshot wounds, surgeries, hip fractures, spinal cord injuries and — like Borden — strokes.
Each patient spends three hours a day with a therapist, and often they bond, said Kavita Jain, one of three therapists who have been in the unit since its start 18 years ago.
"But we don't always get to see the end results," she said.
Most had left in wheelchairs or with canes. But last week, many returned walking without assistance.
The former patients gushed with gratitude for the therapists. They had been depressed. They had given up hope.
One said she came for rehab after she fell on her bathroom floor and had been unable to get help for hours. Now healed, she told her former caregivers she had been out dancing the night before.
A nurse, who was hit by a teenage driver when she was stopped at an intersection, said she had learned new levels of compassion through her therapists.
On the sixth floor "Independence Square," the rehab patients had practiced climbing in and out of a car. They walked on uneven surfaces and climbed stairs. They shopped in a mock grocery store piled with colorful plastic fruits and boxes of cereals. They climbed into a bath tub and made pretend food in a kitchen.
Borden, of Carrollwood, stayed in the unit for five weeks and was there for a birthday, which she called her best ever after family and caregivers showered her with affection.
"She's walking," one therapist whispered to another as Borden stood to take a microphone at the reunion.
"I know," said the other, smiling.
Borden said the therapists made her get up and walk. "I kept saying 'I can't do it.' They kept saying: 'Yes you can.' "
As Borden told her story, Lynne Kaiser, an occupational therapist, wiped a tear.
"I can walk," Borden said. "I can talk. I can read from my Kindle. I can't put my gratitude into enough words."
She adopted a motto: It may take longer. I may do it differently. But I can do what anyone else can do.
• • •
As the former patients streamed out after the reunion and the therapists headed back to work with their current patients, Mariette Coulter, 86, wanted a quick visit to the rehab unit. Her former therapist, Pamela Miller, held her hand and led her back.
Coulter, who lives in Old Seminole Heights, had been riding her bicycle on a sidewalk heading to church in December when she veered onto the grass to go around a man who was walking. But when she steered back to the sidewalk, she lost her balance and fell, fracturing her hip.
After an operation, Coulter was told by doctors she would need to move out of her apartment, which has a second floor.
She enlisted Miller to help her conquer stairs. Now, she swims 40 laps twice a week at the University of South Florida
And she has a new tricycle.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.