A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

A reason to dance: ‘Toots’ walks after 43 years

‘Toots’ walks after 43 years

EAU CLAIRE – Bracing her arms on two polished, metal parallel bars, LaNita “Toots” Richardson meticulously made her way to the other end, a tattoo of her son flexing in concert with each movement of her right arm muscles.

“How ya feeling today, Toots?” asked Christa Young.

“Good,” LaNita said matter-of-factly. She was there to work.

Young is one of two physical therapists who has worked with LaNita since fall 2014. LaNita is paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury more than four decades ago and wheelchair-bound all that time.

“There” is the Marshfield Clinic Eau Claire Physical Therapy Center where LaNita, now 57, walked earlier this year for the first time in 43 years with the help of an advanced brace, specially trained physical therapists and one heck of a motivated spirit.

An opportunity to change

At 13, LaNita was paralyzed in a hunting accident when an errant shotgun blast to her abdomen took away her ability to walk. She spent seven months in the hospital before returning home.

From that point forward, she’s faced life’s challenges head on. She got her driver’s license, finished high school and met the love of her life, Brad Richardson, her husband of 38 years and wingman on her journey to walking.

She and Brad have fostered 56 children while raising their own four kids. So, to say her injury slowed her down simply would be ridiculous.

But, she did begin to feel a bit different in late 2014.

“I was getting lazy,” she said. “I had to change to better myself.”

So, as she is known to do, she took on the ultimate challenge for someone with a spinal cord injury – walking.

Beating the odds

First she met with an orthotics specialist who sized her for a special brace that helps move legs forward as the person shifts weight from side to side with the help of crutches or parallel bars.

The brace, finicky and needing constant adjustments, resembles a Victorian-era corset attached to metal rods running the length of her legs. During each session, especially in the beginning, it required fine-tuning to make it work for LaNita.

Then, she was sent to see Mark Wilson, a physical therapist at Marshfield Clinic Eau Claire Physical Therapy. This is when the real work began.

Wilson, as well as Young, is trained in neurological rehabilitation. When he meets someone like Toots he gets excited at the chance and challenge of helping someone improve her quality of life.

But he also knows the reality. Anecdotally, about 20 percent of people are successful with this type of therapy and brace, Wilson said.

Most people burn out, not willing to endure 3-4 hours of work needed daily to gain strength necessary to take a few steps. Those who do succeed often are much younger than Toots, including many veterans wounded in combat.

LaNita, though, was among that 20 percent.

“I’m one for a challenge,” she said. “I’m a gutsy person. I have been since I got hurt.”

From a chair to a walk

When therapy began, LaNita needed stronger shoulders and upper-body muscles to hold her up and shift her weight, a combination that works with the brace to move her paralyzed legs forward.

Make no mistake. She wasn’t getting a magic pill to walk unassisted. It was countless hours training at the Clinic and at home. Brad built parallel bars in their barn so she could practice. LaNita has lost track of the thousands of push-ups she’s logged.

That’s what it takes, Wilson said. Unwavering commitment.

“When I started out I thought Mark was just being mean, but he was pushing me and believing in me,” LaNita said. “I wouldn’t be here without him.”

The support of her family also brought those first steps to fruition.

Brad is a tall, friendly man with what seems to be an unwavering smile never at a loss for words. As he has done since he first carried her up the steps to the second floor of their high school, he was there to make her wish of walking become a reality.

So what happened seven months after that first fateful meeting with Wilson and Young was nothing short of life changing for LaNita and Brad.

Toots takes steps

It happened one day in January during a routine session with Young and Wilson.

LaNita, months into her training, was now strong enough to attempt to take her first steps with the brace and parallel bars. Using her own strength, she hammered out three monumental steps that were decades overdue.

“I made a big deal out of the first three steps,” Brad said, during an April therapy session. “There’s a special glow about a person. When she stood up she was just beaming.”

As for LaNita, it had to sink in.

“It took me a while to believe it,” LaNita said. “It’s been years. Now I smile.”

Walking forward

Jump to an early spring day in the same Clinic gym, only a couple months after those first steps.

Brad, LaNita and the gang are back for some more parallel bar work with Young. At this point, she has taken up to 120 steps by herself and is working toward using crutches rather than the bars.

During this session, she used one crutch and a parallel bar. It’s hard work and will take more practice. No doubt, she’ll tackle this challenge.

Her quality of life has improved, too. Pressure sores, a common problem and often the cause of blood poisoning which is the No. 2 cause of death for people with spinal cord injuries, have improved.

She’s lost 30 pounds and no longer needs blood pressure, cholesterol and bone density medications. And, she’s walking up to 30 feet with crutches and 200 feet using parallel bars.

All of which are reasons to celebrate. Or dance.

“It’s so nice to look her in the eyes,” Brad said. “It means more than I can say. I used to get on my knees and we would dance. Now we can stand – together.”

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