Learning To Live Again

Organization: Service: Story Topics:
Rehabilitation & Physical Therapy

In summer 2005, life was good for 21-year-old Binh Duong. He had graduated from the police academy the previous winter and was close to completing his probationary period as a Long Beach police officer. He was also engaged to be married—and in the best shape of his life. That all changed one June evening when a drunk driver traveling nearly 70 miles an hour crashed head-on into the patrol car Binh was driving. He was knocked unconscious on impact. Only later did Binh learn of the frantic efforts of fellow officers and bystanders to pull him from the burning wreck—or about the ambulance trip to Long Beach Memorial, and the five days he spent in the intensive care unit before regaining consciousness.

When Binh left the hospital three weeks after the accident, he continued therapy at Long Beach Memorial Transitional Rehabilitation Services, which is located in a converted house a short drive from the medical center campus. His left femur and right knee had been shattered, and he had minor brain injuries that severely affected his short-term memory.

"The Transitional Rehabilitation house exists to help people with neurologic injuries regain their independence and successfully reintegrate into their jobs, families and communities," explains Ann Vasile, M.D., a board-certified physiatrist (doctor specializing in rehabilitation medicine) and expert in spinal cord injuries. The house provides the perfect setting for patients to practice the skills needed for everyday living. They’re taught to become as self-sufficient as possible by relearning activities such as brushing their teeth, folding laundry and Binh’s personal favorite—relearning to cook.

Dr. Vasile, who directs the program, notes that it’s critical for people with accident-related disabilities and other types of neurological impairments to undergo rehabilitation that deals with the restoration of skills used in the real world. "We address the physical, cognitive, emotional and social changes that occur after a major accident involving a brain injury," she says. "But we do this in a variety of settings, including the patient’s home and work. That way, our therapists are able to design techniques that are uniquely suited to each person’s life and needs."

"The encouragement I received from the treatment program’s staff, my fiancée and family got me through the worst times."

When Binh entered Memorial’s Transitional Rehabilitation Services house, he needed extensive physical therapy to help him regain strength and coordination in his shattered legs. "I couldn't even lift up my foot—that’s how much muscle I had lost," he says. "But the therapists were great. They came up with exercises I could do lying in bed." He also received neuromuscular stimulation, a therapy that uses electrical impulses to stimulate affected nerve pathways, resulting in the restoration of healthy muscle tone. During his 11 months in the day treatment program, Binh made the slow, painful transition from a wheelchair to walking on his own without limping. But it wasn't an easy ride.

"I'd been a strong, athletic guy, always working out and doing physical activities with my friends. Now I couldn't even walk," he says. He credits the encouragement he received from the day treatment program's staff and support group, his fiancée and his family for helping him through the worst times.

The Transitional Rehabilitation Services program provides services Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Every day, a shuttle transported Binh to and from the hospital. In addition to physical therapy, he spent hours working with speech and occupational therapists. At first he played computer games to help sharpen his memory; later, therapists quizzed him about police policies and procedures. Once he was mobile, an occupational therapist accompanied him to classes at the Long Beach Police Academy, and then tested him on the material.

But Binh’s biggest hurdle was getting back in shape. To resume his career, he had to meet certain physical requirements, including running 1.5 miles in under 13 minutes and scaling a 6-foot wall at the Academy obstacle course. For two months, Transitional Rehabilitation Services therapists helped him train at the pool, the track and the Academy. When he finally ran his one-and-a-half miles in record time and aced the obstacle course, they were as jubilant as he was.

Binh returned to active duty almost a year to the day after his accident. His beat now includes the Transitional Rehabilitation Services house, and he often stops in to see the staff. "After 11 months, I got to know those people really well," he says. "The encouragement and help they gave me were tremendous."

Binh still has some memory problems, but the techniques he learned at Long Beach Memorial help him cope. And although his knee was shattered in the accident, it was expertly repaired, enabling him to run half marathons. "Binh's surgeons did a great job putting his shattered legs back together," says Dr. Vasile. "The goal of the Transitional Rehabilitation Services team was to help him do the same with his life."