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Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Outdoorsman enjoys recreational therapy during spinal cord injury recovery

September 27, 2022

June 27th, 2022, is a day that Thomas Bulfer will never forget. While celebrating a friend’s birthday, the 22-year-old from Madison, South Dakota, was swimming on Lake Madison. While diving into the lake, Thomas bumped his head immediately knowing something was wrong.

“I knew something was definitely wrong when they pulled me on the dock, and I couldn’t feel anywhere below my chest,” Thomas said. “At first, I thought my body was just numb from the impact. But after not being able to move anything below that injury point, I knew something along the spine was injured.”

Thomas was flown to Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls where he stayed for about a week. While at Avera, Thomas had a difficult time sitting up without passing out. The spinal cord injury led to a long road ahead.

Thomas then came to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals.

“I never even imagined being in a place like Madonna,” Thomas said. “No one ever expects an injury like this to happen to themselves. My mental state was definitely the roughest the first couple of weeks. As time went on, it got better every day. You keep telling yourself day by day, one day after another it gets better, and it did.”

The avid outdoorsman who loves to run, swim and bike began inpatient therapy in Madonna’s spinal cord injury program, and right away, his care team noticed his optimism.

“He was ready to get to work right away when we started seeing him for therapy,” Dani Willey, inpatient occupational therapist, said. “His progress has shown how much work he’s really put in this rehab. He’s been such a great patient to work with.”

Just a few weeks into his stay at Madonna, Thomas started to regain feeling and function in his lower body, a huge step into restoring his confidence.

“At that point, I immediately gained a lot of hope that the recovery would be greater and greater as the days went on, and it did,” Thomas remembered. “When I could start wiggling my toes, it started transitioning upwards throughout my right leg, into my thigh, and eventually into my core.”

With that love for the outdoors, Madonna therapists made sure to work in Thomas’ interests into his therapy.

“He told us he loves to fish,” Willey said. “He lives on a lake, so we set up a fishing outing with recreational therapy, and we were able to go out to Holmes Lake. We got him out on the adaptive dock, and he actually caught a fish and he had a lot of fun. He said that this still shows him that he can do stuff.”

From catching fish to disc golfing on Madonna’s campus, Thomas started gaining more independence. There was even learning how to play wheelchair basketball and a workout during a trip to Madonna Proactive, an off-site, state-of-the-art health and fitness center.  

“Thomas has a very active lifestyle, so that was one thing he said he really wanted to be able to get back to doing,” Willey said. “I took him to Proactive, and he met with a personal trainer. We did a whole workout, and he loved it.”

Along with the recreational therapy, Thomas also used Madonna’s Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES bike) and NuStep during physical therapy.

“The equipment is the reason why I’ve gained so much function,” Thomas said. “It’s just how much the equipment works me and how much it accommodates to my level of injury and level of function.”

Thomas hopes to continue that momentum as he works through Madonna’s Rehabilitation Day Program, which is designed to help patients learn to function more independently in their home and community.

“Thomas was always ready for a challenge so anything I threw at him he said, ‘alright, let’s try it,’” Willey said. “I think that positive attitude is what really pushed him through and what really motivated him.”

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