Baling alfalfa hay on his cattle ranch near Rice, Washington, Ryan Esvelt was familiar with the hard work. What he wasn’t prepared for was when one of the bales rolled off the wagon and down the hill straight for him.
“I turned around to face it and barely saw it. I got hit by the bale,” he recalled. The bale knocked him over and smashed vertebrae in his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
After the responding EMS team stabilized Esvelt and called Northwest MedStar for critical air transport to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, he spent 10 days in treatment. Then he transferred to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute for the hard work of recovery.
“I couldn’t even sit up when I first got to St. Luke’s. Someone had to help me,” he said, explaining that after 20 days of inpatient therapy he could shower independently and after several more months of outpatient therapy, he could walk with forearm crutches and leg braces.
While at St. Luke’s, Ryan applied drive and determination to every therapeutic task, even volunteering to pilot a new robotic-assisted Lokomat therapy – a device designed to help patients improve walking ability after a stroke or spinal cord injury.
“He was always up for anything that we wanted to work on in therapy,” said St. Luke’s Physical Therapist Aimee Wallace. “It was really a pleasure to work with him. He is just so motivated and so positive and always looking forward to how much more independent he would be.”
Held over a treadmill in a harness, the robotic Lokomat moved his legs in a walking pattern with therapy staff and a computer monitoring how his body responded.
“The first time was real exciting,” he said. “It retrains my brain to send the right signals using the walking motion. The first time I walked for 15 minutes.” The time spent walking grew until he could do 40 minutes in one session.
“It does help,” Esvelt said, explaining that when he followed the Lokomat with other therapies, such as aquatic therapy in the heated pool, he saw improvement. “If I go from the Lokomat to the NuStep® recumbent crosstrainer machine, I can hold my legs straighter. My legs seem to hold some of the walking motion better. I do better with the Lokomat than without.”
With the goal to return to his farm in time for calving season, Esvelt was determined to improve as quickly as possible.
Each milestone along the way, from stopping medication to every new muscle twinge, became an encouragement for him to keep pushing and reach that goal. To help him, his therapists worked on building his strength, range of motion, and muscle symmetry while helping him relearn to walk and teaching his wife how to help.
His therapy was also designed to help him get back to everyday life, relearning gaining strength and learning the techniques he needed to do things like go up the stairs to tuck his kids in bed or climb onto a tractor.
“I think they are great,” said Esvelt of his therapists. “They are drivers, as a physical therapist should be. They have gotten the maximum potential that my body can do right now.”
When not in therapy, Esvelt said he practiced walking at home and worked out in the gym doing recommend stretches and exercises. “They direct me what to do and I follow what they ask me to do. It’s been a good experience considering what’s happened. I wish I wouldn’t have had to be here but they made me feel at home.”
For his wife, Annje, the welcoming atmosphere was especially good since she and their two small children also moved to Spokane to be near Ryan during his recovery.
“St. Luke’s was such a welcoming facility for us and the kids,” said Annje. “We were there all the time. We spent many hours at that play ground. And we’d hang out in the cafeteria. It was nice to know we were welcome there; the kids could play and be loud. It made a difference to be there, that we could go as a family.”
And Ryan met his goal to return home in time for calving season. “I’m pretty optimistic,” he said. “They have taught me to walk with straight leg braces and crutches. I have a little bit of function above the knee in both legs. In the pool I can stand with flotation devices. I’m slowly recovering, returning function to my legs a little at a time.”