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Paralyzed nurse's ordeal binds a family

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    Paralyzed nurse's ordeal binds a family

    Paralyzed nurse's ordeal binds a family
    Behind the wheel of her Jeep Liberty, Mary Ellen Lewis made her way home south along Route 18 through the early March rain and sleet.

    Stuck in what she called the "winter blues," the 37-year-old Neptune City nurse said she was thinking of ways to make better use of her free time. At that moment, she paused to reflect on the good fortune in her life and said a silent prayer of thanks.

    "I literally said, 'Thank you, God, for everything,' " she recalled.

    MICHAEL SYPNIEWSKI/Staff Photographer

    Mary Ellen Lewis lifts 2-pound dumbbells while lying on her stomach at Kessler Rehabilitation Institute.
    Just seconds later, she felt her tires begin to spin and slip on the ice. Not wanting to strike the car in the right lane, Lewis veered left, off the highway and into a patch of trees.

    Two months later, Lewis, a nurse who once provided home care for a quadriplegic, finds herself at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, paralyzed from the waist down.

    The March 6 accident just south of Route 66 in Neptune brought a sudden end to one part of Lewis' life and forced her to start another.

    But, in another way, it had a positive effect: From the birth of her first grandchild, Cameron, to her 19th wedding anniversary to traditional Easter celebrations, her family and friends found new ways to come together and transcend the tragedy.

    The accident
    Lewis recalls waking up inside her car after the 11 a.m. crash, the face of an unknown man at her window.
    "I asked him to stay with me," she said of Neptune Patrolman Douglas Martin, the first officer to arrive. He and Patrolman Steven Smith, next on the scene, had been trained as emergency medical technicians and immediately started treatment, said Capt. Michael Zagury, who was in charge of operations for police that day.

    The combination of rain, snow and ice created a dangerous mix that day. Police throughout the Shore area reported at least 100 accidents, most of them minor.

    What she remembers of the accident, Lewis retells candidly and without hesitation.

    She remembers the positioning of her body, how her torso was against the passenger door with her hands on the floor. Her legs -- which she could not feel -- jutted out awkwardly, perpendicular to the driver's side door. Lewis said her seat belt hadn't been fastened.

    "Just tell me, are my legs attached to my body?" she asked one rescuer.

    A team of emergency workers -- mostly volunteers -- worked for about a half hour to free her from the wreckage, which was twisted into the trees, Zagury said. They included the Hamilton and Shark River Hills first aid squads, the fire department, the town's office of emergency management and MON-OC paramedics.

    "The main goal of extrication is that you don't remove the victim from the vehicle, you remove the vehicle from around the victim," Zagury said.

    The driving rain and sleet, the positioning of both Lewis and the vehicle, and the tight space all added to the difficulties, said Zagury, who was not at the scene but who spoke with some of the emergency personnel who responded.

    Lewis said she refused to cry, and even cracked jokes with some of the rescue workers, teasing them about damaging her car.

    "I was conscious the whole time," she said. "I would try to calm myself by closing my eyes and praying."

    At those moments, emergency workers called out for her to stay with them, she said.

    At the hospital
    Staffers at Jersey Shore Medical Center, Neptune, put out calls to Lewis' husband and other family members.
    They reached Lewis' younger brother, Al Orlando, at the bike shop in Shrewsbury where he works.

    "I didn't ask any questions, just because I didn't want to know" until he got to the hospital, he said.

    Her sister, Sharon Barnes, also got a call at work. Despite reas-surances from her brothers that Mary would be OK, she quickly headed to the hospital.

    "My whole heart was pounding," she recalled through tears. "I was literally praying out loud on the car ride, 'God, please let her be OK.' "

    Lewis is one of three siblings, and her father had two more sons in a second marriage. The entire family still lives in the Neptune City area. Lewis and her husband, Brett, have two daughters, Jessica, 18, and 16-year-old Desiree.

    One by one, each learned of the accident. Soon about 25 friends and family members gathered in the hospital's waiting room, recalled Orlando.

    Together, family members took in the bad news from doctors. Mary had a spinal cord injury and possibly was paralyzed from the neck down, according to her sister, Sharon. The doctors said emergency surgery was necessary to try to repair vertebrae that had been broken, but it was possible Lewis would not make it through the procedure.

    After surgery, Lewis did not understand why so many of her family members and friends had gathered around her. She did not know why they were so kind and jumped at her every request. Why one friend -- whom she had not spoken to in a while because of a spat -- was by her side. Why another whispered something funny into her ear.

    During the surgery, doctors placed steel rods in her back. They put a tube into her chest to equalize the pressure that damaged her lungs.

    Within a few weeks her lungs and ribs healed enough to have the chest tube removed.

    At first, Lewis said, the extent of her injuries did not quite set in. But at one moment, she remembers holding both of her daughters' hands, and then blacking out.

    Seconds later, she awoke. Her daughter Jessica told her she had flatlined -- meaning her heart had stopped -- for 14 seconds.

    The incident prompted doctors to temporarily insert a pacemaker.

    In Kessler
    During the trip of about 45 minutes from the hospital to the rehab facility, Lewis said, she slept most of the time. She missed the sight of the lush rolling hills and golf courses near the hospital.
    But now that she has been there for about a month, she takes in some of the scenery. She sometimes tries to spend a small part of the day sitting outdoors, writing in her journal or responding to the numerous letters and cards.

    The hardest part of her day is waking up, feeling as if somebody has attached her lower body to a board and nailed it to the bed, she said. Although she cannot use her legs, she can still feel sensations of pain and heaviness -- as if they were encased in cement.

    She talks easily about the accident and care received. But when she describes that daily realization that she cannot move her legs, she chokes back tears.

    MICHAEL SYPNIEWSKI/Staff Photographer

    Buddy, a teddy bear given to Lewis by her mother, Ruthann Sorsenson, is a constant companion at the West Orange hospital.
    "The mornings suck," she said. "I just hold on and wait it out."

    What pulls her through, she said, are the telephone calls, first to her husband, then to her 5-year-old niece, Amanda, who loves to chat on the phone.

    Her father -- Alfred Orlando Sr., who had a broken foot -- spent almost every day by her side in the hospital and when she arrived at Kessler. She often refers to him when talking about what has helped her through the ordeal.The rehabilitation

    Lewis, a Baptist, said she was not a regular churchgoer, but she has always believed in God and included prayer in her life.

    In her eyes, she had three miracles within a month. She lived through the accident, she lived through the surgery, and she died for a matter of seconds when her heart stopped, but returned.

    Asking God for another -- the chance to walk again -- is asking too much. But that is what it is going to take, she said.

    "It's going to be a miracle for me to walk, really," said Lewis, as she cites a statistic given to her by doctors: a 5 percent chance that she will walk again.

    She is banking on that 5 percent as she works her way through physical and occupational therapy six days a week.

    This is a day-by-day process that requires different exercises and techniques that let her regain her strength and teach her how to perform the daily tasks of life while in a wheelchair.

    Lewis said that her own goals conflict with those of her therapists.

    "My goal is to walk," she said. "Their goal is to make me independent in a wheelchair."

    Her first efforts in therapy were simply to learn to sit up, which took about two weeks. Because her body had been in a prone position for so long, the sudden change caused a fluctuation in blood pressure, which led to dizziness and severe headaches.

    To reacquaint her body with an upright position, her therapist, Melissa Ries, put her on a tilt table, which gradually let her get used to sitting up again.

    Lewis said she had to overcome not only the dizziness, but a fear of falling and panic as she learned to sit upright again and balance on the edge of the mats in the gym -- which are raised about a foot off the ground.

    "I dreaded it," she said of learning to sit up. But as the weeks passed, she regained some strength and her determination to heal and return home.

    Now Lewis looks forward to the exercises at the gym with Ries, and the tasks she is relearning in her occupational therapy classes in the afternoons.

    On a recent Wednesday, she and Ries worked on exercises to strengthen her upper body and maintain control of her torso.

    Ries tossed a weighted red ball to Lewis as she sat on the mats. Lewis alternated the hand she used to catch the ball, forcing slight maneuvering of her torso while maintaining balance.

    So she could lift weights, Lewis' body was held in a standing position using a special machine. This allowed her blood to circulate through her body, and improve her balance and the functioning of her respiratory system, Ries said.

    But it was a bittersweet feeling for Lewis.

    "It is upsetting because I feel normal (standing) again," she said.

    "She's driven," said Ries, describing how Lewis constantly pushes herself through the exercises, while watching those around her, asking what exercises they are doing and whether she can try them.

    Family and friends
    Sometimes, Lewis confessed, she does not want to be the strong-willed person people say she is; she just wants to get out of her wheelchair. She wants to feel the sand between her toes and ride her bike. She is grappling with the idea of being in a wheelchair and how it will feel to return home -- where she will no longer be surrounded by people with similar disabilities.
    A date for her release has not been set. It depends upon her progress in therapy and retro-fitting the house for wheelchair accessibility.

    "Basically, what you're doing is starting your life over," she said. "Everything is new. It's frightening."

    But while she relearns how to live her life, her family and friends make sure that she does not miss out on it.

    On April 15, when her daughter gave birth, Lewis was connected by cell phone to comfort Jessica and to hear the cries of her first grandchild. She has seen him a few times.

    On Easter, when her friends and family normally got together for breakfast, the gathering was relocated to Kessler. Together they had breakfast on the grounds and held an Easter egg hunt for the younger children.

    She and younger daughter Desiree have grown closer, and the 16-year-old, who is a student at The Academy of Allied Health and Sciences, Neptune, now takes the opportunity to study over the phone with her mother.

    Lewis' room is filled with pictures, cards, letters and gifts, as well as visitors who arrive regularly.

    Since the accident, Lewis' sister, Sharon, said she has heard from family members, friends, former teachers and classmates who have all heard about her sister's struggle.

    "For the worst thing that has happened, some of the best things have come out of it," Barnes said. She said the family pulled together closer than ever, and friends and old acquaintances provided an outpouring of support.

    This support led to the organization of a fund-raiser for Lewis and her family, which will be held at the Headliner nightclub in Neptune on Saturday.

    "God has definitely blessed a really bad situation," Barnes said.

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    We need this lady, check this attitude,

    "My goal is to walk," she said. "Their goal is to make me independent in a wheelchair."

    2010 SCINet Clinical Trial Support Squad Member

    "You kids and your cures, why back when I was injured they gave us a wheelchair and that's the way it was and we liked it!" Grumpy Old Man

    .."i used to be able to goof around so much because i knew Superman had my back. now all i've got is his example -- and that's gonna have to be enough."