Sherry Jennings and her husband, Mike, relocated to Florida from Tennessee. Looking for a change of scenery to kick-start their retirement, they scoured the state for a picturesque place to call home. Eventually, they decided to build a home in Citrus Hills — a community near The Villages that promotes active, resort-style living. In their new community, you often find Sherry and Mike in the gym.
“One of the reasons we chose to live in Florida is because we like to work out,” Sherry said. “We’re very health-oriented and exercise four or five days a week.”
One evening, while enjoying a barbecue dinner, Sherry abruptly experienced agonizing pain coursing through her back. The pain was so intense that she lay on the floor screaming and crying for help.
“I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “It felt like somebody took an ice pick and was stabbing me with it.”
Mike called their neighbor, also named Sherri, to evaluate the situation. Sherri was a former medical aerovac medical administrator with Prehospital Trauma Life Support training. During her informal assessment, Sherry noted that her fingers were numb. That was when their neighbor recommended they go to the emergency room as fast as possible.
“Sherri’s husband and my husband carried me into the truck and took me to the emergency room,” Sherry said. “She was able to walk her way in and get me seen before everyone else.”
After being evaluated by a doctor and getting a CT scan, Sherry was diagnosed with a spontaneous spinal epidural hematoma. This is a rare and potentially life-altering condition in which blood accumulates in the epidural space, or the space surrounding spinal nerves. This causes compression and inflammation of the spinal cord, leading to acute neurological issues. It was clear her condition needed a highly specialized level of care that the regional hospital could not provide, so she was emergently transferred to UF Health in Gainesville, Florida.
Emergency surgery at UF Health
As soon as she arrived at UF Health, Sherry was met by a team of medical professionals, including the chief of the cerebrovascular surgery division, Adam Polifka, MD, ready to evaluate her for surgery.
“Her condition was very serious,” Dr. Polifka said. “She had impending quadriplegia if she was not treated quickly.”
Sherry underwent a spinal angiogram to evaluate for surgery. A spinal angiogram is a procedure using dye and low-dose X-rays to provide a detailed picture of the blood vessels of the spine, spinal cord and surrounding soft tissue. After evaluation, Sherry was transferred to the operating room so doctors could remove the blood clot causing her symptoms. Due to the severity and rarity of the condition, it was unknown if Sherry would be able to walk after the surgery was complete.
Worried about the surgery’s outcome, Sherry used humor to calm her fears.
“I always told Mike if I passed first, he should marry right away,” Sherry said. “The last thing I said before I went into the operating room was, ‘Don’t stay single.’”
Out in the waiting area, Mike nervously but patiently waited for an update. Following surgery, Dr. Polifka notified Mike that Sherry was doing very well.
“I was impressed by Dr. Polifka,” Mike said. “After surgery, he came out in the waiting room and talked to me. He also called me the next day and continued to come by to update us. Those interactions are special during these harder times.”
Sherry’s prognosis was very good. She had minimal decrease in spinal flexibility and was able to retain her motor functions, including walking. There was a high success rate that Sherry would be able to return to her normal activities after an in-patient recovery period of 4 to 6 weeks.
Road to recovery
During her hospital stay, Sherry was treated by physiatrists at the University of Florida Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Physiatrists treat a wide variety of conditions and focus on maximizing independence for those with physical impairments and disabilities to get patients back to the activities they enjoy.
Andrea Aguirre, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the department, helped Sherry to restore function and quality of life after suffering the spinal cord injury.
“Spinal cord injuries can affect everything from muscle strength to bowel and bladder function,” Dr. Aguirre said. “We focus on therapy for patients to achieve the goal of improving muscle strength and independence.”
For three hours a day during her time in the hospital, Sherry worked with physical and occupational therapists to gain her independence to safely transition home.
“Therapy is extremely important in the recovery process following a spinal cord injury,” said Michael Chiarelli, PT, a physical therapist at UF Health Rehab Centers. “We are the first to get them out of bed and teach them early mobilization skills such as transferring to a chair, onto the toilet, into the shower, into a car and walking.”
Patient education is also important in physical therapy so patients and their families understand an injury and what it means for the body.
“Everybody had a little something new and different to add that made my journey better and faster,” Sherry said.
Dr. Aguirre pointed out that Sherry’s history of frequent exercise helped her enjoy a speedy recovery.
“Sherry has a great foundation in terms of her endurance and strength,” Dr. Aguirre said. “She was always ready to work hard, which paid off throughout her admission.”
Grateful for high-quality care
On the day she went home, Sherry celebrated with her care team. While it was an emotional experience, Sherry made sure to extend her gratitude.
“Thank you for making this possible,” Sherry said. “It could have been a completely different outcome, but because of (the team of medical professionals) I am here.”
Sherry’s husband, Mike, was impressed from the first day they arrived in the emergency room all the way until the day they went home.
“UF Health is the most efficient hospital I have ever seen,” Mike said. “I was a key account executive with Kraft Foods for 35 years, and these doctors started moving from the get-go. From the doctors to the nurses and the physical therapists, I have never seen that kind of efficiency.”
The importance of self-care
Sherry is back to exercising regularly and often reflects on how her routine self-care helped her overcome her spinal cord injury. Her message for others is simple: Invest in taking care of yourself.
“As a retired couple, we make our own schedules, but we still schedule time for working out, walking and staying healthy,” Sherry said. “I believe that is what made my recovery go faster. It is so important to take care of yourself before anything else.”