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Li Chen and the Gift of Hope

By his mid-30s, Dr. Li Chen had earned his doctorate degree, coauthored several papers that were published in academic journals and had his research findings featured at conferences. He was driven.

Beating Odds 1 2014

A couple years later, after a harrowing car accident, Chen continues to demonstrate that drive as he rebuilds his new life from a wheelchair.

“I was driving home from Raleigh…and that’s all I remember. I woke up in the hospital,” says Chen. That was March 9, 2013. Chen was told he hit a tree, but he has no recollection of it.

When Chen arrived at the WakeMed Emergency Department, his journey through the entire WakeMed Spinal Cord Injury Program began. Chen’s spine was broken in two places at the C3 and C4 vertebrae. The surgeon implanted seven rods in his back and he later awoke in the intensive care unit (ICU).

People who suffer C3 vertebra injuries often do not survive due to significant breathing difficulties. Not so for Chen. “I was on a ventilator for a long time in ICU,” says Chen. “I thought I was going to be on it for the rest of my life.” Beginning with just a few minutes, the nurses and physicians slowly began to wean Chen off the ventilator until he was breathing through a tracheostomy tube.

As members of the WakeMed Spinal Cord Injury team continued to work with Chen, he, in turn, continued to reach new milestones – new levels of hope – that he hadn’t thought possible.

Beating Odds 2 2014

After a month in the ICU, Chen graduated to the Rehabilitation Hospital’s acute care unit, where his healing and therapy continued. “I still had the trach tube which was uncomfortable,” says Chen. Like the ventilator, Chen thought he would have the trach tube for life. But again, Chen beat the odds. Patrick O’Brien, MD, the medical director of the WakeMed Rehabilitation Hospital and Spinal Cord Injury Program, who followed Chen’s progress, decided that Chen no longer needed the trach tube. “Dr. O’Brien helped me pull out the trach in my throat,” explains Chen, who was so pleased to reach this milestone. Later in his stay, a physician assistant helped Chen remove his stomach (feeding) tube and nurses and therapists worked with him to sit up in a chair for two hours at a time – a feat for someone who has been lying in a bed for close to two months.

During his inpatient therapy, Chen learned to operate a wheelchair using sip-and-puff technology. Patients like Chen, who have little or no movement in their arms and hands, use their breath to operate devices like a wheelchair.

On June 13, three months after his accident, Chen went home. His mother had come from China to help care for him. They moved from Fayetteville to Raleigh so that Chen would be close to WakeMed for his outpatient Day Treatment therapy sessions.

Once enrolled in the WakeMed Day Treatment Program, Chen’s drive to improve coupled with the expertise and can-do attitudes of his therapists continued to propel his abilities to new levels. “When I came to Day Treatment, I had very little movement,” explains Chen. “But Cheryl [the physical therapist] helps me stand up using a machine to help keep my muscles active.” In the beginning, Chen would get lightheaded when he was vertical. This was due to low blood pressure. Now, he can be vertical for long periods of time in the equipment.

Kelly, Chen’s occupational therapist, also puts Chen through his paces. Thanks to her therapy and encouragement and his hard work, Chen is now able to operate his wheelchair by using his hands, triceps, biceps and deltoids in a certain way. “I didn’t like the sip-and-puff. It was tiring,” says Chen. “Now, I’m stronger and know how to use my upper body to operate my wheelchair.”

At home, Chen uses Dragon software, which WakeMed’s recreational therapist introduced to him. Dragon software allows Chen to operate his computer with his voice. This makes it possible for him to continue to do his research and to communicate via email. He also downloads novels, music and listens to the radio to stay current. Looking ahead, Chen hopes to return to his work and teach online courses.

Chen’s progress (Yes, his progress continues!) and his accomplishments are amazing for a person who suffered such traumatic injuries. He is quick to give his therapy team the lion’s share of the credit for his accomplishments. “I felt very dark at first, but now I feel I have hope. I really appreciate the people here who have given me my hope,” he says and adds. “I encourage everyone [who has had a spinal cord injury] to continue working after leaving the hospital. Go back to rehab. The people here make me feel like I can still have a life.”