Sidney Ritter's life changed at just 18 years old as she headed home with her best friend to Spokane during holiday break at Washington State University. On this drive home the pair were involved in a tragic car accident, one that took the life of Sidney's friend on impact. Sidney was badly injured and taken by air transport to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.
"I don't remember anything about my accident," Sidney says. "From what I've been told, we ended up sideways, in oncoming traffic and hit by a truck."
The accident left Sidney with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and several injuries to her body. She spent 10 days in Sacred Heart's ICU, where surgery to fix a broken arm left Sidney with a steel plate from her shoulder to her elbow and 16 screws. As soon as she was able, Sidney began her rehabilitation journey with the help of therapists from St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute embedded as part of the Sacred Heart hospital care team. Sidney needed to relearn to walk, talk and even recognize her family again.
Rehabilitation journey begins
"When I got to St. Luke's my eyes weren't open," she says. "I couldn't walk yet, and I was in a wheelchair. I was stable enough that St. Luke's Traumatic Brain Injury unit could take me from Sacred Heart."
Sidney spent 22 days at St. Luke's, the region's only Level I trauma rehabilitation hospital. She worked with a team of providers dedicated to rehabilitation - a physiatrist, psychologist and therapists ranging from physical, occupational, recreational and speech-language pathology. She says each day was charted out and scheduled: therapy in the morning, rest and lunch, and then back at therapy that afternoon.
"I was really tired by the end of the day," she says. "The therapists are all really great, and it doesn't feel tough. I loved all my therapists."
One memory of her stay at St. Luke's in particular was something so small in so many ways but also rather big for someone suffering from a brain injury. "I remember not being able to tie my shoes," Sidney says. "My favorite therapist, Paul, always tied my shoes in the morning, and he kept showing me how to tie them. I would always practice. One morning, he came in to do it, but I had already tied them. It was a really big moment for him and me."
"I can remember meeting her within the first few hours of coming to St. Luke's," says Paul Tippetts, doctorate of physical therapy at St. Luke's. "She had a difficult time holding up her head and controlling her body posture. Her mind was going a mile a minute, yet she was pretty tired and fatigue; however, you could tell she was in there cognitively. I can remember the day I came into the room and she was sitting on the edge of the bed with a big smile--and her shoes tied. She was all ready for therapy and wanted to show me what she had accomplished. She was very motivated to improve; she enjoyed the soccer drills and walking on the treadmill."
A care team approved by mom
"Sidney had to relearn how to eat, drink and swallow because she ended up needing a feeding tube for nutrition because she was unconscious so long," says Sidney's mother, Stacy Ritter. "The nutritionist and chef were great at making a menu available that she would like and regain her strength on. The nursing assistants were the consistent, compassionate ones who showed her care above what a job description states. They French braided her hair daily and rubbed her temples in the middle of the night when a migraine wouldn't subside.
Sidney says her experience with TBI was the reality that she knew she had this injury and knew the obstacles she was working to overcome like walking, talking and remembering daily functions, but she didn't understand why she couldn't do these things. "The therapists and the people who work in TBI--and probably all of St. Luke's-- don't make you feel like you're broken and needing therapy," Sidney says of her time in rehabilitation.
Physically, Sidney worked to learn to use her arm, now supported by a steel plate. "Her arm was stuck at a 90 degree angle," says Stacy. "St. Luke's tried a new casting technique they hadn't done before. It allowed her arm, with the help of gravity, slowly straighten out over three to four days. She now has a mostly straight arm!"
"St. Luke's understands TBI and what the patient is working through, and gives them respect and care that we were so thankful for."
Integrating back into her community
"It was great to work with Sidney while she was here and to see her progress," says Sara Dunbar, recreational therapist at St. Luke's. "With recreational therapy, we get patients integrated into the community-on and off St. Luke's campus-to do what they enjoyed doing before. Sidney told us how much she enjoyed Christmas lights. So, we decided to take an outing to Manito Park to see the indoor light display as part of her therapy. I remember how excited she was as she walked through the display. We sat on the bench while she took it all in. She was very grateful to get out and have that experience. It has been wonderful to see her outside St. Luke's and back in the community."
After being discharged as an inpatient, Sidney continued speech and physical therapy in St. Luke's outpatient program for more than six months. Her goal: returning to WSU.
"I've worked really hard and was able to return to WSU part-time in the fall of 2016, about nine months after my accident," she says. "I've got big goals." Sidney says she has dreams of majoring in microbiology and is working toward that goal.
Support for TBI patients and families
St. Luke's hosts
TBI support groups
for both survivors and their caregivers.
"My family and I got plugged into the support groups," she says. "In the survivor group, we do monthly activities where we all get together; it's a lot of fun. They have a lot of tips and pointers because they know the secrets of how to handle life with a brain injury. It's just really humbling whenever I'm with [other survivors]. There's an understanding that's really nice. They just know."
Today, Sidney experiences frequent migraines, short-term memory loss and her speech is slower than before, but, she says, she's working on that in therapy.
Sidney offers this advice for others going through a brain injury or knows someone who is: "I would say it gets better. Your brain will heal. Even though your projected outcome is low, like not being able to do the things you did before, it absolutely is possible. You have to want to do it. St. Luke's will give you all the support you need so you can do that.
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