Walk with Gratitude: Sam’s Story
In January 2021, Sam loaded his wheelchair and himself into his Ford Econoline handicap van and drove the 1,749 miles from Colorado to Florida, hoping to find relief from his litany of health problems.
His last six months in Colorado were spent bedridden, with his lumbar stenosis, sacroiliac joint disease, chronic shoulder pain and PTSD leaving him drained. When he finally rolled into Gainesville hoping to get treatment at UF Health, he had too little money, chronic pain and no zest for life.
Sam spent the next several months undergoing treatment at UF Health. He had 10 surgeries, culminating with an inpatient spinal surgery with his neurosurgeon, Matthew Decker, MD, MBA, MPH, an assistant professor in the department of neurosurgery. During this period, he was living in and out of the hospital, hotels and his van.
Steps to Recovery
Sam’s journey was far from over. Now that he was through his surgeries, it was time for rehab through UF Health Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
His physical recovery was led by Andrea Aguirre, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, who worked with Sam to use a robotic device called an exoskeleton that Sam jokingly referred to as the “terminator suit.”
This large, futuristic-looking machine worked Sam’s lower body muscles to help him gain strength, which slowly began to return.
Sam also works with aquatic therapist Jillian Knippen to maintain his strength. He’s been following an exercise regimen for six months now and has come to love it.
He recalls how he felt the day he met Knippen for their first session.
“I did not want to get into that pool,” he said, chuckling.
With the help of his walking sticks, Sam, the 60-year-old man who used a wheelchair for five years, is now able to stand and walk.
In coordination with physical therapy, Sam also worked with Lori Waxenberg, PhD, ABPP, a clinical professor in the department of clinical and health psychology. Dr. Waxenberg helped Sam transform his mind. She taught him mindfulness, meditation and journaling. Sam learned to manifest his goals by keeping a journal on his phone. He documents his feelings, experiences, medications and goals.
Sam spent his days in the rehab hospital laughing, crying and learning as the staff cheered him on. He enjoyed foods he had not eaten in over three years, used newly strengthened muscles and found a grateful mindset that filled his heart.
“I was saved,” he said.
Nine months after arriving in Gainesville, Sam made another huge step in his recovery journey. Right across from the UF Health Rehab Hospital was a little apartment complex that Sam had been eyeing on the way to his visits. He filled out an application and, to his surprise, got approved. Now Sam drives by the rehab hospital in his van every time he leaves his apartment, always remembering the place that literally helped him back onto his feet.
Sam is full of gratitude for his team of physicians, caretakers and other UF Health staff who helped him learn to walk. He now spends his days happy to be alive, attending aquatic therapy, spending time with his daughter and granddaughter and enjoying all that his new life has to offer.