Click here to watch a video of Lori Williams' recovery regimen.
LINCOLN — Lori Williams hopes to walk again through the toil of physical therapy or by a miracle as stunning as the bizarre blow that put her in a wheelchair.
A basketball hoop and backboard, ratcheted up and out of the way, broke partially free and swung like a pendulum into Williams' back as she watched a March wrestling tournament in Weeping Water, Neb. The impact shattered a vertebra as though it were a porcelain trinket, causing paralysis in her lower legs.
Love, not rage, drives her now.
“It's a bad thing that happened,” she said. “Ultimately, I'm gonna walk. That is my goal.”
She wants to play ball again with her sons. She wants to ride bicycles and roller coasters with them. But nobody knows how far rehab, faith, hope and time can propel her recovery.
Williams, 30, has undergone two back surgeries at the Nebraska Medical Center. She endures long therapy sessions here at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, working those legs, trying to spark her damaged nerves and spine to communicate with the brain again.
She and others have realistic hope that she will walk, perhaps with her legs braced.
In a moment that reflects where she is right now, Williams tried Wednesday to walk backward in the Madonna swimming pool with the help of staffer Sarah Stevicks. Williams concentrated hard, ordering her legs and feet to go where she wanted them to go.
“OK?” Stevicks asked her.
“Yeah,” Williams said. “I'm just putting in a lot of effort here. Little steps, little steps, baby steps.”
Williams and her family of four moved in 2011 from Texas to the Murray, Neb., area to work on a farm. She and husband Tim wanted their boys to know what hard work was all about.
Precisely two years later to the day on March 3, the Williamses' sons, 8-year-old Ethan and 9-year-old Cameron, wrestled in a tournament in the gym in Weeping Water, which is between Omaha and Lincoln.
Williams, sitting in the bleachers, heard a noise, then was briefly knocked unconscious. A cable apparently had come loose and a basketball hoop, secured from above, swung down and drilled her in the lower back. She woke up in the gymnasium in great pain. The impact knocked the wind out of her. She couldn't feel her legs.
It was unreal, a fog, said her husband, who was seated next to her and unhurt. “I remember her screaming at the top of her lungs every time they had to move her,” Tim Williams said. Three other people were not as seriously injured.
Dr. Chris Cornett, the Nebraska Medical Center orthopedic spine surgeon who operated on Williams, said he had never seen a patient injured in such a strange way.
“It is a crazy incident,” Cornett said. The basketball rim acted almost like a scythe, Cornett said. It hit her with such force that it pulverized a vertebra in Williams' lower back and severed nerves. If it had struck her in the neck, he said, it would have killed her and possibly decapitated her.
The injured spine looked like one damaged in a high-speed car wreck. “It was a really, really bad injury,” Cornett said.
The force also shifted the spine forward and to the side. In the first surgery, Cornett used two rods and eight screws to realign the spine and stabilize it. He also removed a few large pieces of the shattered vertebra.
In the second surgery, several days later, Cornett removed about 10 more tiny pieces of the obliterated vertebra and put a 1-inch-high titanium cage where the vertebra had been. In time, the spine will grow through the cage and the two ends will meld.
Cornett is optimistic she will walk again, perhaps with crutches or possibly just with stabilizing braces under her feet and up her lower leg. Walking well with those small braces would be an excellent goal for her, Cornett said.
“Whether she'll get that far, I don't know,” he said. “But I hope she does.”
It's a good thing she's tough.
“I'm a Texas girl,” the 5-foot Williams said, her brown eyes shining. She loved to wear flip-flops but can't anymore because her feet won't respond to the subconscious order to manipulate the toes to keep them on. She vows she'll wear cowboy boots again.
Williams has won many fans on Facebook, where she writes about her challenges. “It still boggles my mind how much support and love I have coming my way!” she wrote on March 26. “It amazes me what a difference that makes.”
On May 8, she wrote: “You never know how many muscles are involved in walking until you have to think about engaging each one to take a step. ... I've learned so much from my injury, this experience, and the people I've met that I could never be the same person again. Thank God!!”
Among the followers of that page, called “Benefit of Lori Williams,” is 72-year-old Genrose Brockman, who grew up in Nebraska but has lived in California more than 50 years. Brockman writes encouraging messages on Williams' page.
“I just wanted her to know that somebody else believes she's got what it takes, and so does God,” Brockman said over the phone. “She does reach people. She needs to know that.”
Although the Williams family had no Weeping Water ties, several residents have visited Williams in Madonna. They threw a benefit for the Williams family Saturday in the Weeping Water American Legion building.
Tiffani Keckler, who coordinated the benefit, said that “it's not hard to want to help her because she wants to help herself so much.” Williams and Keckler regularly text and talk by phone now.
“All I can say is 'Wow.' What she's done and what she continues to do and what she's committed to doing is just incredible,” Keckler said.
Williams graduated from high school in Texas and attended nursing school until she changed her mind while training in a nursing home. She worked in retail for a while in Nebraska City but was a stay-at-home mom when injured.
She has found writing about her situation cathartic.
“Sometimes you just get so moved by life, whether it's frustration or happiness,” she said in an interview last week, “and you want the whole world to hear you.”
She and her husband are private people, she said, who turn on the faucet when they go to the bathroom. Now she writes about her bowel movements, over which she has gained much control in recent weeks, which is a sign of great progress. She was thrilled.
“Very awesome,” she said. “I told everybody.”
Urination is another matter. She still must catheterize herself.
“If you've never been in a wheelchair, you think 'Oh, they can't walk.'” It's more than that, she said. “There's not one thing in your life that it doesn't change. ... Everything that you do takes at least double the energy if you're in a wheelchair.”
She can't open the window in her room. Getting out of bed is a battle.
Her husband, a Council Bluffs truck driver, heads for Lincoln every evening and stays with her at Madonna. Their two sons stay in their Murray home, and Tim's mother takes care of them.
Williams has worked diligently at Madonna over the past two months. She expects to go home, where her husband is making hasty wheelchair modifications, within a couple of weeks.
She is known at Madonna as a spitfire. When she arrived at Madonna, she couldn't stand or even sit up. Now, her main physical therapist needs to rein her in.
“We kind of go back and forth on how much I'm allowed to do by myself,” Williams said Wednesday afternoon as she worked with Matt Ulmer in the Madonna gym.
“She's definitely motivated,” Ulmer said. She wants to work on standing and walking in her room, he said, but he would prefer that she work mainly with him so her posture and gait are sound.
Last week she made her first sandwich since the accident with the help of occupational therapist Nicole Brown. It was tough for Williams to rise to the counter, and she kept her right hand firmly on the flat surface to balance herself.
Williams used her left hand to slowly take the twist-tie from the bag of bread. She scraped out the peanut butter, dabbed it on the bread, then poured jam from the jar onto the sandwich. Brown stayed close to keep Williams upright.
Her knees seem to work independent of her brain. “They want to lock when I tuck my rear end,” Williams told Brown.
She finished making the sandwich. “Whoo-hoo!” Williams said, sighing as she sagged back into the wheelchair.
Then they went to a machine where Williams was supposed to stand and work her arms, but she didn't have the strength to stay upright. Making the sandwich had worn her down.
“I'm sorry,” Williams said to Brown.
“No,” Brown said. “You have to listen to your body.”
Next up was the Lokomat machine, a Swiss-made robotic treadmill that helps patients walk with the assistance of the machine's legs. Computer software records how much work the patient is doing on her own, how fast she's able to go and how much the robotic legs must guide her. The hope is that through repetition, the patient's central nervous system will communicate clearly again so she can relearn to stride properly.
“Your ankle's going all over the place, girl,” physical therapist Amy Goldman said to Williams. “Did you feel that?”
“Yeah, I felt that,” Williams said. “Which is a good thing.”
The machine also provides an aerobic workout. “That keeps the doughnuts off me,” she said.
Williams worked about 30 minutes on the Lokomat. Then Ulmer helped her put on her short leg braces — hard plastic devices that sit flat beneath her feet and rise toward her knee — to take some steps on her own. She used a walker, and Ulmer wrapped his left arm around her waist and placed his right on her weaker right leg.
“Try not to lock this knee,” Ulmer said. “Let that left leg come out there.” He told her to place her foot on the floor with the step and not to let it flop backward.
Williams had to think about each move.
“She's come a long ways,” Ulmer said. “Twenty feet there.”
The family's attorney, Omahan Gary Norton, said people assume some risk when they walk across the street, but not when they sit in the bleachers to watch boys wrestle. The family will sue the Weeping Water school district and any third party that was supposed to maintain the structure that crashed into Williams, Norton said. School officials did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Williamses have no health insurance but hope to obtain Medicaid. Norton said they already have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, plus the cost of renovations to the home, her pain, the suffering the family has gone through.
“I'm missing out on a big part of their life,” she said of her sons, who visit her on weekends. “I don't get to be the mom.”
She and her husband have grown closer. He's really stepped up for her, she said. “As long as I have him, I don't have to worry about anything.”
She aims to walk again, but it will never be the same. She used to love to play softball. She enjoyed running and exercised off pounds gained when she had the boys. She wants nerves to fire, to work with each other and send their messages through the spine, to the brain, and back down.
“It's a wait and see to see what nerves come back.”
She's not angry, she said, just sad. She wants no pity, but this new reality is tough.
Her older son, Cameron, had been surprisingly quiet when visiting her, so she asked Cameron what was going on. He started to bawl and said he just wanted her home. She cried, too.
She told him that she would return soon, but it wouldn't be like it was before. She said, “I'll need your help.”
“He said 'I know, Mom. I'll do it. I just want you home.'”
She isn't as optimistic as she was weeks ago that she'll regain full mobility.
If she has to adjust, she said, she will. She has her husband and her boys. She'll watch, if she must, at the water park and amusement park. And she'll find ways to enjoy that.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1123, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/rickruggles