November 8, 2005
Therapy Puts Hurricane Katrina Survivor on Path to Independence
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—Like a lot of people whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by Hurricane Katrina, Alice Houston of Bay Springs sees herself as a survivor. The storm’s wrath may have shattered her rib cage, bruised her lungs, battered her skull and crushed her spinal cord, but it didn’t make a dent in her determination.
Every day she tests her limits in the third floor therapy gym at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. “All I know is to keep going until it hurts too much to do it,” she says. “I want as much of my freedom back as I can.”
Houston was injured on the Monday afternoon the hurricane struck Mississippi, and she still isn’t sure what hit her. She was following her husband as he headed out to pull a limb off their tractor when something knocked her to the ground. “It was pretty big, whatever it was,” she said. “The shape of my scars covers most all of me and it got the dirt around me pretty good, too.”
It took all R.K. “Sonny” Houston had to carry his wife the 100 feet to their front door. He immediately dialed 911, only to learn that the hurricane had hamstrung rescue efforts. “They said ambulances couldn’t run because of the wind.”
But help was on the way. “I can’t say enough about our assistant police chief Mack Jones,” Sonny said. “Within minutes, he was at my door. He got a crew to cut several trees from our driveway so we could get to the hospital. They risked their lives to save Alice. It turned out she was really in a bad fix.”
So bad, in fact, that Jasper General Hospital could only stabilize Houston and by Monday evening she had been transferred to South Central Regional Medical Center in Laurel. Doctors there determined she needed even more specialized care, but the area’s trauma centers couldn’t be reached by phone. Finally, a National Guardsman managed to fix the hospital’s satellite phone and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center agreed to accept her.
Houston reached the trauma center 36 hours after her accident, only to be dealt another blow. Doctors there had to amputate her right leg because of life-threatening blood clots.
By the time Houston made it to rehab, she had survived three surgeries and spent 36 days in intensive care.
Her 12 broken ribs continue to torture her, yet Houston still attacks her therapy sessions with as much moxie as she can muster. “She’s a real trouper,” said Methodist occupational therapist Suzanne Yelverton. “She tries to work through her pain as much as she can.”
“You do what it takes to get to the next step,” Houston says matter-of-factly. “It sounds like an oversimplification, but it’s true.” With independence as her goal, Houston has worked hard to improve her sitting balance and regain the upper body strength she’ll need to transfer in and out of her wheelchair.
“She doesn’t have the attitude that this is going to keep her down,” said Jennifer Montgomery, a physical therapist at Methodist. “She’s going to do what she wants to do regardless of her disabilities.” Her husband of 39 years can vouch for that. “We will rally, I assure you of that,” he said. “She’s a strong lady.”