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Marathon Man

Travel and adventure have long been a part of Paul and Karen Tetor’s lives. Italy. Spain. Greece. Alaska. Both retired teachers from Pocono Mountain High School; Paul taught anthropology, philosophy and Russian, Karen taught English; the couple was fulfilling a dream when they set off to ski the Austrian Alps in January 2019. Crippling snow storms and trails closed by avalanches didn’t hold back these two intrepid skiiers, and with the help of a guide, they tackled the terrain with their usual gusto.

Karen remembers Paul seemed disoriented that day. “It wasn’t like him,” she says of Paul, a man whose considerable intellect propelled him full throttle through life on an international scale. The next day at dinner, Paul had a “mind-numbing headache” causing excruciating pain. One of their travel companions, a close friend, looked in Paul’s eyes and told them he needed to get to a hospital immediately. An ambulance arrived, and Paul was admitted to a hospital in Innsbruck, an hour away. Fortunately for Paul, who had been stricken by a subdural hematoma requiring an emergency craniotomy and blood drained from inside his skull, it was one of the top neurological hospitals in Austria. Communication, however, was a challenge.

“One of the hardest things was trying to understand what the doctors and nurses were saying because they spoke in German,” says Karen. “We used apps on the phone and body language (to interpret).”

The pressure on Paul’s brain was traumatic, causing several strokes and rendering him unable to move or communicate. “The only response we could get was slight movement in his left thumb, and sometimes fluttering of his eyelids, says Karen. “I knew this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint.”

Paul remained in the intensive care unit in Austria for two weeks, his prognosis anything but certain. Karen was grateful for the long- distance support from family and friends. And just as she and Paul did at their home in Lake Wallenpaupack in the Poconos, Karen found solace in nature.  “I took a lot of walks and drew tremendous strength and energy from the mountains around me,” she says.

Paul finally stabilized enough to return to the United States on a private medical flight. Karen was relieved to learn that the travel insurance she and Paul bought at their friend’s insistence before their trip would cover the cost. “We were so grateful, because we had never bought insurance before,” says Karen.

Paul was admitted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Therapists with Good Shepherd Penn Partners embraced the challenge of Paul’s recovery. He was barely responding to stimulus, showing little cognitive improvement. The strokes left him unable to speak and physically helpless. “I couldn’t imagine how in the world anybody could do rehab with him,” says Karen. “It took a long time before he would even open his eyes. There was a musician who played “Norwegian Wood” and I kept playing “Spirit in the Sky” to him (Paul) over and over again. It was music that made him open his eyes.”

Over the next month, therapists worked with Paul to get him stronger. Even though he could not move his hands or legs, therapists had him on his feet in a standing frame. Gradually he was able to utter a few words at a time. “They kept telling me, ‘He has nerve connections,’” says Karen. “’We can get those connections working.’ I was stunned. I didn’t see how. Evidently they could see things we couldn’t.”

During the final two weeks at Penn, Paul was sitting up and talking. He had improved enough to be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. Karen was given a short list of places to consider. None were near their home.  After touring two other places and based on the glowing recommendation by the social worker at Penn, Karen and her daughter visited Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown. The hour-and-a-half drive back and forth between their home and Allentown would be difficult, but Karen instantly knew Good Shepherd was where she wanted Paul to be for his inpatient rehabilitation. “It had this personal feel. It didn’t feel institutional,” says Karen. “Rehabilitation is what Good Shepherd does. There was real confidence in making that choice.”

Paul was admitted to the brain injury unit and began up to three-and-a-half hours a day of physical, occupational and speech therapies. “We got there on a Friday and couldn’t believe they had him in therapy all weekend,” says Karen. “They needed to jump-start him. They weren’t going to let him sit there all weekend.”

Laura VanArsdale, Paul’s physical therapist, remembers Paul could not stand or hold himself up while sitting. He also needed help from two people taking steps. Progress, however, came quickly. “In one week, Paul went from tolerating the standing frame for five minutes to 30 minutes, which was a huge improvement,” says Laura. 

The Ekso Bionic exoskeleton played a big role in Paul’s recovery. “The Ekso was critical in getting him on his feet,” says Karen. “In a little over two weeks he was able to walk with a walker.”

Laura adds, “It allowed him to be upright and walk for longer than he would tolerate without it, and it helped him get a reciprocal walking pattern down. “

Having stepped into a world more foreign than any they had ever visited on their travels, Karen and Paul were comforted by the compassion and expertise that would serve Karen well as her husband’s caregiver at home. “What made me feel good is every single day they allowed me to be very involved in Paul’s therapy,” says Karen. “They actually embraced it. There’s not a person in this place that’s not a teacher. Even the aides.”

Karen was further impressed by the level of communication among all Paul’s caregivers.  “It’s a coordinated team that’s putting all the puzzle pieces together,” she says.

“I’ve been happy with Good Shepherd,” says Paul. “Not many people can say that about their medical institution.”

Laura also gives credit to the couple’s strong bond and love for one another. “Both Paul and Karen had a positive spirit throughout the experience, but it was definitely Karen’s determination, hard work and support that made the difference in Paul’s care,” says Laura.

After two months at Good Shepherd, Paul could stand, walk and climb stairs with help. He returned to the peace and quiet beauty of the Lake Wallenpaupack home he shares with Karen. They savor the simple things, like sitting on their porch, watching the leaves turn glorious colors matched only by the sunsets over the lake. A robust social life reconnecting with friends keeps them happily busy. Their traveling days are not over either, and they are planning a cruise up the Mississippi.

As they look back to the start of their medical journey together, Karen and Paul marvel at how far he has come with Good Shepherd’s help. Paul can feed himself, get in and out of the car with a little help, and every week walks farther with a walker. There have been setbacks, but true to form, he keeps rebounding. “Paul’s brain is still waking up,” says Karen. “Even though he’s very good intellectually, he still has processing issues. But his sense of humor is returning.”

Reflecting on the randomness of life, Karen says, “I tell my friends, this didn’t happen to Paul. It happened to the two of us. If you want to make God laugh, tell him what you’re doing tomorrow.”

Paul has his own philosophical take. “It’s easy to say, ‘Why me? I didn’t do anything to deserve this.’ But I’m accepting of it. I’ve taken the inability to walk a whole lot better than I thought I would. I’d like to lead as normal a life as I can.”

To support Assistive and Rehabilitative Technology at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, visit goodshepherdrehab.org/donate or contact the Development Office at 610-778-1075.