Tornado survivor finds motivation, smile during rehab journey

He’s encouraged by family and the hope he will be able to walk again.

5:00 AM

Author | Noah Fromson

Man in hospital recovering. Man sitting by welcome home Dave banner smiling and waving while in wheelchair
Credit: Boughner family. Side-by-side pictures of Boughner in the hospital at U-M Health (left) and when he arrived back in Gaylord (right).

Every so often, there's some movement in his feet. The same goes for his hips and abs.

"I still can't feel nothing yet," said Dave Boughner. "But I'm surprised I've made it as far as I have."

Sitting beside two therapists in his hospital room, 45-year-old Boughner is brought to tears. Just two months earlier, a tornado ripped through Gaylord, Mich., killing two people. And Boughner knows how close he was to being the third.

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"My son and I were about to move my camper to my brother's house to stay there for the night when we heard wind that sounded like a freight train," he said. "I looked out the window and seen the roof of a carport fly by. As I went to warn my son, a tree flew through the wall of my bedroom."

SEE ALSO: Mental health is an issue for people with spinal cord injury. Chronic pain makes it worse

Boughner's youngest son found him underneath two walls. It took the help several neighbors to clear the debris before getting him to an ambulance. Boughner had a punctured lung, broken ribs and several fractures in his spine – he was unable to move from the chest down.

After his transfer to University of Michigan Health, Boughner had a chest tube placed and underwent spinal surgery. He had another surgery days later after blood began clotting around the spine and was on a ventilator for over two weeks.  

"It didn't hit me what was going on until I started seeing my family like a week after the procedures," he said. "I couldn't talk for a while. I cried a lot. Doctors told me there was a small chance I would walk again, but I'm motivated to try."

Credit: U-M Health. Boughner working with members of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in an occupational therapy session.

When he was transferred from the ICU to be treated by the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Boughner immediately began work with physical and occupational therapists. They started at the bedside with a focus on gaining strength and movement to transfer to his power wheelchair.

"In the beginning, his endurance wasn't at its best, and there is a lot of anxiety with getting acclimated to this new form of movement," said Tracy Newsom, P.T., a physical therapist at U-M Health. "We wanted him to eventually become fully independent, but first we had him work on transferring from one surface to another, getting in and out of bed and becoming more comfortable with the manual chair that he would be using at home."

SEE ALSO: 'My life matters': resilience after traumatic spinal cord injury

Boughner's physical therapy sessions, Newsom says, were complemented by occupational therapy that focused on self-care and management. As he worked to move about on his own, Boughner would also address daily on tasks like putting on his clothes and going to the bathroom.

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"The way I describe the relationship at that stage is that physical therapy is about mobility from place to place, while occupational therapy is going to help you do what you're doing when you are there," said Michael Blackstock, O.T., an occupational therapist at U-M Health. "We meet weekly with the doctors and discuss progress and barriers. All of it is try and make sure Dave is ready for being discharged and doing this work at home."

Despite his anxiety and stubborn sense of humor – "no" always being his first answer – Boughner tried every task his therapy team presented. The progress, Newsom says, was evident with each movement.

"His fear went down every day," she said. "I really knew he would gain independence, and it was just a matter of time.  Especially when things are getting really tough, he leaned more on his sense of humor, and I think that helped him push through. Additionally, his family is on board, and they weren't scared to jump in and help."

Credit: U-M Health, Boughner family. On the left, Boughner fishing with the assistance of U-M Health therapists, and on the right, him fishing after his discharge from the hospital.

Recent Michigan Medicine research found that resilience, and how one thinks about themself and their health, is associated with flourishing after traumatic spinal cord injury. Survivors of SCI are also more likely to flourish if they have strong systems of support.

"My family motivates me through all of this," Boughner said. "My wife would come down every week. She's my rock here and at home. She's taking care of all our bills and stuff. The community has been great, too. We had a guy offer us a place to live after our home got destroyed, and all we have to do is pay utilities. Friends of mine also had a fundraiser and raised like $15,000 to help me."

Boughner was discharged on July 22, thrilled to see his family and get back on a fishing boat. As he recovers in Gaylord, a town that, itself, is recovering from the destruction caused by the tornado, Boughner ultimately hopes to walk again. But he knows not to rush the process.

"If you try to think about everything all at once, it's overwhelming and difficult to get engaged," Blackstock said. "But if you start focusing on what in under your control first and start with the little things, they begin to build off each other and you see those improvements."

SEE ALSO: 'My life matters': resilience after traumatic spinal cord injury

SEE ALSO: Mental health is an issue for people with spinal cord injury. Chronic pain makes it worse

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More Articles About: Health Management Spinal Cord Injury Spine Surgery occupational therapy Physical Therapy Spine, Back & Neck
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