Christine Bowers is 18 years old and carries a cane.
As a student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, she often finds herself in crowded corridors. She uses the cane as much to alert those around her that she has mobility difficulties as she does for support. Seeing the cane, other students give her a bit more room as they hurry through the halls.
In January 2016, doctors removed a cavernous malformation — a tangle of blood vessels — from deep within Bowers’ brain.
“It paralyzed my left side,” she says as her physical therapist straps her into a complex harness in a large room filled with equipment at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab — formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Now, she says, “I’m working on preventing a fall.”
Under the supervision of Ashley Bobich, her physical therapist, Bowers, who one day hopes to teach English abroad, is walking on the KineAssist MX, a computerized treadmill with a robotic arm and harness at the back. The metal arm allows people freedom of motion but catches them if they stumble.
Most of the traumatic brain injury patients and spinal cord injury patients we see had no previous disability.Dr. Elliot J. Roth, Medical Director, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab
Falls are one of life’s great overlooked perils. We fear terror attacks, shark bites, Ebola outbreaks and other minutely remote dangers. Yet nearly half a million people each year die worldwide after falling. Falls are the second-leading cause of death by injury, after car accidents. In the United States, falls cause 32,000 fatalities a year — more than four times the number caused by drowning or fires combined. Nearly three times as many people die in this country after falling than are murdered by firearms.
And more people go to emergency rooms after falling than from any other form of mishap, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — nearly triple the rate due to car accidents.
Any fall, even a tumble out of bed, can change life profoundly, taking someone from robust health to grave disability in less than a second. Falling can cause fractures and even injuries to internal organs, the brain and spinal cord.
“Anybody can fall,” says Dr. Elliot J. Roth, medical director of the patient recovery unit at the AbilityLab. “And most of the traumatic brain injury patients and spinal cord injury patients we see had no previous disability.”
People fall in different ways. They can trip or slip when walking. They lose consciousness and collapse or are sent tumbling by vertigo. Something supposedly solid gives way. They leap from high places.
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