Patient Stories: 
Juan Cruz, Spinal cord patient
Juan Cruz

Life took an unexpected turn for Juan Cruz, when a pallet carrying a 900 pound load fell from a shelf at the electrical supply distribution company where he had worked for more than 13 years. With no time to get out of the way, he was crushed by the heavy load. Juan sustained severe spine and spinal cord injuries: his T11 vertebra was broken into three pieces and his spinal cord was damaged. Surgery at an acute care hospital required two plates, eight pins and two bridges to stabilize Juan’s spine, but he will rely on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Five days after his surgery, he arrived at Hospital for Special Care a little apprehensive about his second hospital stay. However, he says “The nurses made me feel very welcome and comfortable right away.”

Juan completed nearly 10 weeks of intensive rehabilitation services at Hospital for Special Care. Physical and occupational therapy helped him adjust to his new reality and helped him learn to function on two wheels. Juan’s therapists focused on balance, core strengthening and advanced wheelchair skills, and never lost sight of the basics. “My therapists really helped me to deal with my injury and got me ready to go into the real world,” said Juan. Juan also visited the Hospital for Special Care Fitness Center three times a week for weight training, received neuromuscular stimulation for his legs, and used the EasyStand™ to improve circulation. 

Juan’s incredible spirit has been a critical component of his rehabilitation. “My wheelchair is a part of life, every day it is a new chapter. The day of my injury…that’s just what happened. I’m just lucky that I’m here and I get to see my family; see my sons, my daughter, my wife and my grandson” he told his therapists. “If this is what is meant for me to learn something different in life and understand the struggles that someone in a wheelchair has to go through, then that is a good thing.”

Even for positive thinkers like Juan, dealing with a serious injury can be difficult. “Mentally it was a challenge. At week five and six, I had times where I felt down. But between my nurse Peggy and my physical therapist Cathie, I felt comfortable opening up. They brought me back down to earth. They told me that having these feelings was something to be expected. They said ‘Life is challenging because it will throw you a bunch of curves, but you have to keep going; you can’t give up. You came in here with a positive attitude, you’ve taken every challenge and exceeded it, so don’t let this keep you from continuing forward’.”

Juan’s multidisciplinary treatment team knew that he really wanted to be home for his niece’s sweet 16 but wouldn’t be ready for discharge in time for the party. Focusing on Juan’s goal, the team designed his therapy regimen to prepare him for a short visit home.  

The team helped Juan learn how to transfer from different surfaces and function in a home environment, and taught his family how to properly care for his needs. “My niece just burst into tears, she was so happy I was there,” he said. “Just that Saturday alone, just seeing how happy my niece was that I had come, really boosted my morale, and it felt great.”

Watching his roommate and other patients’ progress, he credits have helped to motivate him with his own journey. He even began to use his own determination to motivate others. Cathie, his physical therapist says, “He was always smiling and became a cheerleader to other patients, despite his situation. He never was angry or felt sorry for himself. Instead, he was a positive force on the unit, who inspired and motivated others, including me. Working with him was an absolute privilege and helped me to remember why I love my job.”

As Juan looks to the future, he reflects back to what he has gained not just from the injury, but from his experience: the bond with the staff and the inspiration to help others. “I want to go back and help others who have gone through what I did, help them stay motivated. I walked out of Hospital for Special Care with a whole new family/support system,” said Juan.  “With Dr. Pesce,” he continued, talking about Chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, William J. Pesce, D.O., “I gained an older brother I can talk to about anything. Yes, it will be challenging, but take those challenges you are given and over-exceed them. This is not the end. Never give up, keep it going. At first I didn’t know how much support there was, but now I know that there is support out here for every individual.”

Juan is due back for outpatient therapy where he will begin to use the Re-Walk™, a wearable robotic exoskeleton that enables individuals with a spinal cord injury to stand upright, walk, turn, and climb and descend stairs. He plans to attend the monthly spinal cord support group at Hospital for Special Care and work towards getting back to work. “I think it may not be easy to go back to work,” he said, “but this is just part of the next chapter in my life.”