32-year-old UVA medical student Laura Black will complete residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) this year following her own life changing rehabilitation journey with Guillain- Barre Syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks part of the nervous system causing weakness, sometimes complete paralysis and can potentially be life threatening. On August 11, 2011, Black experienced left-sided weakness in her hand, and within 48 hours that weakness turned into tetraplegia. It was unclear at the time what the young medical student and wife was experiencing.
Following a three week stay in the intensive care unit, Black had an additional three weeks of recovery in a long-term acute care hospital and was on a ventilator. She slowly recovered some strength and at the beginning of September 2011, was admitted into UVA-HealthSouth for inpatient rehabilitation.
It was during her two weeks at UVA-HealthSouth Black gained more than her independence. She gained a new life perspective and purpose.
“I was originally planning to pursue residency in internal medicine. I wanted to be a primary care doctor,” said Black. “I came to love the inpatient rehabilitation environment and wanted to work closely with nurses and therapists. You become aware of the disciplines involved in a successful rehabilitation care plan and you can’t do everything alone.”
When Black was admitted to UVA-HealthSouth, she couldn’t perform everyday tasks such as getting dressed, overhead reaching and had low endurance for activities such as walking and needed balance improvement. Beyond physical therapy needs, Black also had a goal of getting back to her medical school program which would require strengthening her hands and fine motor skills for writing and typing through occupational therapy.
After successfully completing inpatient rehabilitation on September 20, 2011, Black was able to dress herself, walk short distances without assistance and perform tasks for work. She had additional goals she wanted to reach so she could not only do the necessary, but also the things she enjoyed outside of work. Black continued working towards those hobbies through UVA-HealthSouth’s outpatient program.
"The therapists I worked with in both the inpatient and outpatient settings focused both on necessary tasks, and on beginning to do things that I enjoy,” said Black. “My occupational therapist gave me foam tubing to allow me to grip knives and other utensils so I could cook again. We also talked about buying some foods that were pre-chopped, so I could spend more energy on the parts of cooking I enjoy."
Cooking isn’t the only hobby Black picked up again.
"We have a rescue dog, Marshall, who lives with us in downtown Chicago. We had recently adopted Marshall when I was in medical school at UVA when I developed Guillain Barre Syndrome. I used to run with him before I got sick,” said Black. “I can remember trying to walk Marshall, who weighs 70 pounds, shortly after leaving inpatient rehabilitation. He saw a large groundhog that liked to hang out on a hill behind our apartment and yanked me down the hill one day. No one therapy exercise could prepare me for that experience, but the core exercises and the guidance with returning to physical activity provided by my therapists got me strong enough to gradually steer my dog away from that same groundhog. Eventually, I was able to run with my dog again, and ran my first post-Guillain Barre syndrome 5K exactly one year after being admitted to a long-term acute care hospital.”
Building on her endurance and strength, Black eventually was able to run a half-marathon.
"My experience as a patient in acute inpatient rehabilitation made me aware of how important it is for patients to have interdisciplinary care during recovery. I became interested in how the therapists solved problems that came up during activities of daily living that could otherwise have been huge obstacles to independence. As a rehabilitation resident, I am learning how to integrate medical management with the expertise of other members of the rehabilitation team. Being able to work with people in different fields toward a common goal of caring for patients keeps me learning."
Black is expected to complete her fellowship in pediatric rehabilitation in July 2017.