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Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Iowa teacher returns to classroom after spinal cord injury

February 25, 2021

When Whitney Hulse reflects upon the last six months, the word ‘gratitude’ comes to mind. The middle and high school teacher considers herself lucky to be back on her feet, teaching in front of her students after she sustained a spinal cord injury in an October 2020 car crash in northern Iowa.

“It was scary for a little bit when I didn’t know if I could ever walk again,” Whitney recalled. “I had a burst compression fracture of my T-12 vertebrae and a piece of bone broke off and found its way into my spinal cord, so I had some paralysis from that in my lower half.”

After surgery and a two-week stay at MercyOne North Iowa Medical Center in Mason City, Iowa, Whitney arrived at Madonna’s Lincoln Campus for intensive rehabilitation in the specialized spinal cord injury program. Her Madonna care team immediately collaborated with Whitney to develop an individualized care plan built around her goals of walking again, returning to teaching and to being an active member in her community.

Starting small, by learning how to transfer from her wheelchair to another chair or couch, Whitney gained momentum in her recovery journey. Mastering transfers in occupational therapy also played an integral role in having success in skills she practiced during physical therapy, like standing and balancing.

“OT and PT do really go hand in hand,” Whitney said. “Seeing what I could do, you know success builds upon success, and part of that is thinking, ‘What can I do next?’”

Whitney said the most noticeable gains began when she started working with the Lokomat, a robotic treadmill that helps retrain walking function, coupled with aquatic therapy. Mass repetitions of taking steps while on the Lokomat and in the pool gave Whitney the confidence she needed to push forward.

“Originally, I was very concerned about my left leg and left foot, and I think I might have psyched myself out a bit with how they didn’t look like the way my right leg and right foot did,” she said. “But then [my care team] used the Lokomat to gently force it into the proper position. Knowing that if the machine can make it do that and I get used to that, then I can do that as well. That capability didn’t disappear, it just needed some encouragement.”

At the end of her six weeks of rehabilitation, Whitney walked out of Madonna with only the help of a walker. She continued outpatient therapy back in Ames, and has since returned to driving independently and is back in the classroom, teaching Spanish to middle and high school students.

“Being back in the classroom made me realize how much I love my profession and my kids,” she said. “It is wonderful to wake up every day and be excited to go to work. I suppose, it’s one of the reasons I have such a positive outlook on life.

“I will forever say that the Madonna organization is a miracle. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have had world-renowned care.”

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