Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Staff Spotlight: Meet Diane Ulmer, OTR/L

September 30, 2021

Here at Madonna,  we serve roughly 350 patients with a spinal cord injury (SCI) annually at our Lincoln Campus including Westen Erwin, pictured above. And each year, we are committed to improving these individuals’ independence and quality of life. In honor of National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month, we spoke with Diane Ulmer, OTR/L, the program manager for Madonna’s specialized Spinal Cord Injury Program. Diane is part of a team of clinical experts who provide care for spinal cord patients. Read on as Diane shares how Madonna’s rehabilitation programming and specialized technology can help people living with a spinal cord injury return to their life roles.

Q: Why is a rehabilitation program so important for SCI patients?

Diane: Patients are learning a whole new way of life, and it is overwhelming. The decisions made in rehabilitation—the equipment they will use, the set-up of their home and work environment, their transportation and the techniques they use—are important to their long-term success. Here at Madonna, we focus on helping individuals regain independence, maximize neurological recovery and prepare for a safe return to home and work. We also educate the individual about their injury to prevent secondary complications. 

We provide a personalized care plan for each individual based on their needs. Typically, therapy will initially focus on tolerating being out of bed, independence with mobility, transfers and self cares and then progress to independence with home management skills, driving or managing public transportation, community integration, returning to school or work and staying healthy long term. Our patients in acute rehab work daily with a team of individuals including therapy, rehab nurses, rehab counselors, peer volunteers, therapeutic recreation therapists and physicians who specialize in spinal cord injury. Regardless of whether the spinal cord injury is complete or incomplete, we are constantly assessing which tools and techniques we should use each day to maximize their recovery.

Q: How do Madonna’s therapists evaluate patients and create a specialized therapy plan for them?

Diane: Each discipline assesses the patient to get a complete picture of their level of injury. From a physical standpoint, we evaluate a patient’s mobility, strength, respiratory function, GI function, autonomic function, temperature regulation, and bowel and bladder function. We also consider an individual’s mental well-being, including their prior coping habits, mental health conditions and risk for substance abuse.

Our team works with the patient to understand their goals and the barriers they face to returning to their home and the community. We’ll collaboratively set attainable goals and an individualized interdisciplinary treatment plan. This plan typically includes the patient’s family and support system to help the patient realize durable, successful outcomes.

Q: How can SCI patients benefit from rehabilitation and specialized technology?

Diane: Health care professionals who are specially trained in spinal cord injuries can help patients learn to use alternative methods and equipment to achieve their personal goals. We have had patients with a spinal cord injury return to farming, rock climbing, parenting, work, travel, online gaming competitions and even motocross competitions!

Technology can also provide the tools necessary for independence. Madonna’s Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering is constantly developing new solutions in a variety of areas, including hydration, communication, phone use, computer access, environmental control, and leisure activities. Patients can activate many of these tools with the sound of their voice or with the use of their eyes. This technology can certainly be the difference between independence and needing assistance from a caregiver. 

Q: Why is it important for people to participate in rehabilitation soon after an SCI?

Diane: Spinal cord injuries put individuals at great risk for secondary complications, which make recovery longer and more difficult. The sooner an individual can start rehabilitation the better. Delaying therapy puts patients at increased risk of pressure injuries, infections, bowel obstructions, pneumonia and depression.    

Q: What’s the biggest misconception people have about SCI?

Diane: A major misconception is that individuals living with a spinal cord injury are depressed or have a lesser quality of life than the rest of the population. This is simply not true, and we should all challenge ourselves to be familiar with the research surrounding these issues. Another myth is that individuals with a spinal cord injury will miss more work or be less productive than their counterparts, which research has also found to be false. The majority of people living with a spinal cord injury enjoy a high quality of life, engage in many life roles, and are valuable members of their family, their workplace, their school and their community.

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