Regional Rehab’s Miracle Man

Paul Ernandes, PT, PhD, helps breathe new life into multiple stroke victim.

Physical therapist Charles C. Donley has been helping people recuperate from injuries, illnesses and surgeries for nearly four decades, including the last 17 years as owner and director of Regional Rehab in Spring Hill. He recently learned what it was like to be on the other side of the treatment bed.

Stroke victim Charles Donley’s miraculous recovery has been aided by the rehab regimen he’s been going through at his own clinic.

Charles C. Donley

“It all started on January 5 of this year,” 63-year-old Charles relates. “It was a Friday and I was off that day, but I was going into the office anyway to move some furniture because we were renovating my office. Around 10:30 that morning, I was taking a shower when I suddenly felt this intense pain in my lower back, abdomen and throat.

“The pain was mostly in my throat and then it started to go into my jaw. I told my wife there was something wrong, got out of the shower and stumbled to the bed thinking, I need to lie down for a minute. However, shortly thereafter, my vision became altered. I could see my dog lying near the bed, but I couldn’t make out any detail. He was all pixelated as was my wife’s face. I was also having difficulty answering her questions and confusion was increasing.

“We knew then that I was having a neurological issue, and as my wife monitored my condition, she called my son-in-law and daughter, who happened to be just five minutes away. They are missionaries who had just completed a medical survival training program. They came immediately, did a quick assessment and took my blood pressure, which was seventy-five over fifty. That’s when my son-in-law said, We’re going to the hospital right now.”

Seven hours after arriving at Brooksville’s Oak Hill Hospital, Charles learned that the cause of his symptoms was an aortic dissection, a rare and often fatal condition caused by a tear in the innermost layer of the aorta. Blood flowing through the tear goes into the area between the
aorta’s inner and middle layers, causing those layers to separate, or dissect.

Immediately upon reaching their diagnosis, the doctors at Oak Hill Hospital arranged for Charles to be airlifted to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where he spent the next 12 hours undergoing emergency surgery to correct the tear. Shortly after being released from surgery, however, another equally dangerous problem developed.

“I was transitioning into critical care when the top of my aorta burst, and I instantly lost several liters of blood,” Charles explains. “I was immediately rushed back into surgery, and because there was so much blood around the heart, it created enough pressure to actually stop my heart. The doctors tell me I was literally dead on the operating table for about two minutes.

“As soon as they opened my chest again, the pressure from the accumulation of blood was released. But the doctor had to reach in and give my heart a couple of squeezes to get it started again. I call that the handshake of life because it saved me, but as a result of the lack of blood flow from the heart for those two minutes, I suffered four strokes during that operation.”

The strokes left Charles with right-side paralysis, having little or no control of his right arm and hand and very limited use of his right leg. As a result, he followed a 16-day stay in the critical care unit at Shands with a 23-day continuum of care in the stroke rehabilitation center at Tampa General Hospital.

When he was finally sent home on February 16, Charles still had not regained full control of his arm, hand and leg, so he turned to his Regional Rehab colleagues, including physical therapist assistant Glenn Guterman, for help.

“When Charles first returned, we were all very happy to see him, of course, but it was clear that he had suffered a massive stroke, because he had a lot of deficits,” Glenn explains. “He was walking with a quad cane, which was great, but his gait pattern was very unsteady. He also had very limited mobility in his upper right arm.

“He had difficulty reaching up and touching his mouth, so he couldn’t feed himself or drink a glass of water with his affected hand. He had very limited range of motion in his right shoulder because of muscle tightness, binding and weakness, and he could move his right hand a little bit, but he would fatigue very quickly.”

Newcomer Makes Impact

The entire team at Regional Rehab worked together diligently to help Charles regain mobility and strength. About this time, they were able to incorporate the expertise of Paul Ernandes, PT, PhD,  the former director of physical therapy at Oak Hill Hospital who had just become the newest member of the Regional Rehab staff.

Stroke victim Charles Donley’s miraculous recovery has been aided by the rehab regimen he’s been going through at his own clinic.

With the help of new staff member Paul Ernandes (left) and Glenn Guterman (right), Charles has regained his strength and functional mobility.

“I had recently begun looking for a new position, and understood that Charles needed help, not only with his own rehab but with his practice,” Paul explains. “So, he and I got together and talked it over and everything worked out that I was able to join the Regional Rehab team.

“I really consider myself fortunate to be a part of the staff. I love the atmosphere they’ve created here and all the people. There’s a really good Christian family environment here, and that tops the whole thing off for me.”

“Paul has amazing talents, including special certification as a manual therapist,” Charles says of his highly-skilled staff member. “He’s been at this a long time, for more than thirty years, so we are very fortunate to have someone with his abilities on our team.”

Paul’s proficiency and experience paid immediate dividends. When Charles discussed the possibility of purchasing a rather pricey muscle stimulator that might help him rehab his legs, Paul urged him to hold off on the purchase because he was confident Charles would soon regain the strength and mobility he needs through more typical rehab practices.

“I could see that he had some strength in his legs and all we needed to do was strengthen the leg muscles a little more,” Paul reveals. “The stimulator is good if you have absolutely no muscle contraction because it invites the brain to start stimulating the muscles. Charles had the muscle contraction. It was just weak. And I knew that with some hard work and dedication, we as a team at Regional Rehab could get him back to normal again without the stimulator.”

Rapid Results

Paul’s confidence in Charles was not unfounded as Charles was soon spending the bulk of his two daily one-hour rehab sessions working with his therapists on strengthening and range of motion exercises. Class IV laser treatments, which use red and near infrared light to stimulate the body’s natural ability to heal, expedited his recovery along with the use of the Hivamat 200, which reduces inflammation through deep tissue massage.Stroke victim Charles Donley’s miraculous recovery has been aided by the rehab regimen he’s been going through at his own clinic.

The results are what Glenn, Paul and others at Regional Rehab describe as “miraculous.” An avid softball player, Charles has not yet regained full strength of his upper right extremity, but he has enough strength and mobility to swing a bat and recently began typing with his right hand. He is also walking without the assistance of a cane and no longer requires the aid of an ankle brace.

“It’s amazing how well he’s doing,” Glenn enthuses. “Part of that is because, from the very start, he did exactly what every stroke patient should do. He never stopped exercising. He never allowed himself to miss an opportunity to challenge himself, and now he’s at a point where he’s doing resistive exercises. And this is a guy who was dead. He died. That’s why we call him the Miracle Man.”

Paul echoes Glenn’s sentiments, adding that in all of his years as a physical therapist, he has seldom seen a patient bounce back the way Charles has.

“When I saw Charles for the first time about three months ago, he was walking with a cane and had an orthosis on his right lower leg,” Paul reports. “Today, he’s walking without the cane, without an orthosis and with an almost perfect gait. He’s even jogging about seventy-five feet indoors now as an exercise, and he’s doing great. It’s just a remarkable story.”

The story is not one that is exclusive to Charles. Though he has some advantages other patients may not, he believes any stroke victim can make the kind of recovery he did by fully committing themselves to an individualized rehab program and sticking with it until they reach their goals or have regained their desired level of independence.

“My message,” Charles concludes, “is one of hope, and I’d like to thank the dedicated staffs at Shands Hospital, Tampa General Hospital and my own outstanding team at Regional Rehab for their hard work and constant encouragement on my journey back to health. With their help and God’s grace, I look forward to a full recovery as we move forward together.”

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    • Regional Rehab

      Regional Rehab's ultimate goal is to enrich people’s lives by helping to enhance their physical and mental well being, creating an atmosphere of quality care and optimum healing with a loving touch.... Read More

    • Charles C. Donley, PT

      Charles C. Donley, PT, is director of Regional Rehab. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Therapy, graduating cum laude, from the University of Pittsburgh, PA. He is a member of the American Physical Therapy Association and Fl... Read More