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Joe Poelker
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Release Date: 5/20/2013

Dad wheels to daughter's graduation ceremony

St. Anthony's Acute Rehab staff grants patient's graduation wish.

St. Anthony's Acute Rehab staff grants patient's graduation wish.

View this heart-warming video

Five-year-old Alexis Brooks was missing her dad as she donned her bright red scholar’s cap for a May tradition: her preschool graduation ceremony at Sherwood Elementary School in the Fox C-6 School District.

Accompanying Alexis were her proud mom, Crystal, and grandmother, Wanda Brooks. Her dad, Dwayn Brooks, a patient in St. Anthony’s Acute Rehabilitation department with incomplete paralysis, was scheduled to follow the ceremony from his hospital room via the Internet program Skype.

Dwayn had been cutting tree limbs at his Fenton home, preparing to build a treehouse for Alexis, on April 13 when he was hit by one of the branches, which knocked him off the ladder. He sustained a thoracic spine fracture with dislocation, an epidural hematoma, and complete spinal cord injury, and underwent emergency surgery with St. Anthony’s neurosurgeon Fangxiang Chen, M.D.

Now in the early stages of his rehabilitation, Dwayn is learning to get around in a wheelchair. More than anything, he wanted to be on hand for his daughter’s graduation. So when Geri Tyrey, his certified therapeutic recreation specialist, suggested Dwayn go on a planned community reintegration outing with other patients, Dwayn told her about the graduation. Geri obtained permission from Sandy Lehn, manager of Acute Rehabilitation Therapy Services, to escort Dwayn to the ceremony. Dwayn contacted only his mom and the principal about the visit, and swore both to secrecy.

At the commencement ceremony, the assistant principal called Alexis from the bleachers, told the audience of Dwayn’s accident and explained the plan to connect via Skype. Frustration mounted as repeated connection efforts failed. Crystal was nearly in tears.

“I had had a horrible day anyway,” Crystal recalled. “I was upset he was going to miss it, and the principal said we’d move on to Plan B.”

The room was quiet, except for the dialing of the phone number for the Skype connection. When the principal said “Plan B,” Dwayn wheeled himself into the auditorium as a stunned audience looked on.

Lexi screamed her dad’s name, ran to him and gave him a big hug and a kiss. Tissues and handkerchiefs were pulled from pockets and purses. For Crystal, the visit ranked with childbirth on an emotional level.

“I can’t even explain,” she said. “I almost start crying, every time I think about it.”

Dwayn, 37, has progressed from complete to incomplete paralysis, and faces a long road of physical and occupational therapy, said his physiatrist, Harmeen Chawla, M.D., director of spinal cord injury for St. Anthony’s. She is cautiously optimistic.

“When damage has been done to the spinal cord, you don’t know the extent to which function is going to return,” Dr. Chawla said. “But Dwayn has one of the most positive attitudes of anyone I’ve met. He goes to the gym and cheers on the other patients, and is constantly motivating them. It’s just incredible. He’s really doing 99.9 percent of his rehab work, and that’s only going to help him with his recovery process.”

To maximize Dwayn’s chance for recovery, just one hour after he was rushed to St. Anthony’s on April 13, Dr. Chen performed surgery to decompress his spinal cord and to stabilize his unstable thoracic spine.

“After the surgery, he was kept in the ICU for standard spinal cord protocol treatment for one week,” Dr. Chen said. “He regained his sensation from feeling nothing below the navel to being able to feel in the lower abdominal area, and his rectal tone recovered as well.”

Dwayn, a route driver for an industrial laundry firm, has pledged to return to Acute Rehab one day as a volunteer.

“St. Anthony’s is a phenomenal hospital,” he said. “Other hospitals wanted me to come for rehab, but I chose to stay here because of Dr. Chawla. I’m glad I did.

“I’m going to walk again one day,” he added. “There’s not an ‘if’ in my vocabulary: it’s ‘when.’ I may not walk out of Acute Rehab, but I’m going to walk back in.”

That doesn’t surprise his wife of 12 years.

“He’s very bullheaded,” Crystal said. “He’s just the kind of guy who will help anybody with anything, and can do anything as long as he puts his mind to it: home projects, anything. If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

The family has received overwhelming support from friends, neighbors and the community at large, from a freezer full of casseroles and cleaning assistance to a trust fund set up by a co-worker. And soon, a wood swing set will be installed for Alexis with the help of a neighbor’s father-in-law, local church and one of Dwayn’s former customers.

“I think what’s kept me going is not only Dwayn’s positive attitude, but the support and assistance of everyone in the community,” Crystal said. “It means the world to us.”

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