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The Alexis Evans Story

  • Date Submitted: Jun 29, 2023
Alexis Evans can’t remember anything about the day another car rear-ended her at a high rate of speed on Southern California’s 91 Freeway—not being pulled from the wreck by bystanders, given CPR by a nurse in the crowd, or rushed to an emergency room by paramedics.

It started as an ordinary morning, just before Christmas 2021, with Alexis on her way to work as a file clerk at a law firm.

A graduate of University of California, Berkeley, she planned on attending law school in the new year. She slowed down as traffic ahead stalled, and suddenly that future was on hold.

The news was grim. Alexis suffered an Atlanto-Occipital dislocation (AOD), also called “internal decapitation,” in which the skull separates from the spinal column. In 70% of cases, AOD is immediately fatal, because the nerve damage is so extensive or the spinal cord is severed. Those who survive this injury often become quadriplegic or can’t breathe on their own due to respiratory paralysis.

Fortunately, Alexis’ spinal cord was not completely severed. By surviving, she had already beaten the odds. The 23-year-old would continue to beat them as her journey eventually brought her to Casa Colina Hospital, rated one of America’s top rehabilitation facilities.

Before that could happen, she had surgery to reattach her spinal column to her skull. She also underwent multiple procedures while being hospitalized for nearly two months in Orange County. Early on, she needed a ventilator, later a tracheotomy to breathe, and a feeding tube. She couldn’t move her legs or arms, and she answered questions by blinking “yes” or “no.”

Her doctors diagnosed Alexis with locked-in syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which a patient has cognitive function but is unable to move below the eyes or speak. They gave her parents, Jerald and Kathy Evans, a list of three convalescent homes for Alexis. “But we wanted her to have the very best care, nothing less,” says her father.

One of her physicians referred her for inpatient rehabilitation. “That’s when I met Dr. Patterson,” says Alexis, who found her voice again at Casa Colina.

David Patterson, MD, Medical Director of Rehabilitation at Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare, saw a glimmer of possibility when Alexis arrived at its Acute Rehabilitation Wing in February 2022. “Clearly there was some prognosis for recovery.”

Alexis had difficulty breathing and considerable pain. She was frustrated by her condition. But on Dr. Patterson’s first exam and subsequent complete neurological exam, “she wasn’t locked in,” he says.

A cervical 4 (C4) injury like Alexis’ is considered the most critical and deadly spinal cord injury. “She defied that,” says Dr. Patterson, as Alexis started moving distal muscles (in her lower arms, legs, hands, and feet).

He calls her progress since then “nothing short of a miracle. She is doing incredibly well.”

The achievement is due to Alexis’ determination, her family’s support, and what they found on Casa Colina’s 20-acre campus—a continuum of care that earned the hospital recognition from Newsweek as one of “America’s Best Physical Rehabilitation Centers” in 2021 and 2022.

That means Alexis had some advantages, including “access to a treatment team that understands spinal cord injury,” says Dr. Patterson, “therapists who think outside the box, and a place that never provides cookiecutter care.”

She powered through every challenge her therapists presented. Her parents saw the return of her pre-injury “perfectionist” personality, reflected in Alexis’ history as a straight “A” student and an athlete who played softball in high school as well as a travel league.

Alexis sums up what she brought to the task in a single word: “Perseverance.”

After four months in the Acute Rehabilitation Wing, with expert physical, occupational, and speech therapy a minimum of three hours a day, five days a week, Alexis graduated to the Day Treatment Program at Casa Colina’s Transitional Living Center (TLC). She traveled from her family’s Yorba Linda home five days a week to receive intensive outpatient therapy five hours a day, focusing on independence, walking, core strength, and speech. “At first I could only whisper,” she says. “Now at least I have a bit of a voice.”

How often was it difficult to go on? “Every day,” she says. But she kept going.

Alexis can now maneuver her power wheelchair with a joystick and deftly handles texts on her iPhone. She helps her parents with transfers from her wheelchair to van or bed. And she walks across the TLC with the assistance of a therapist and a machine attached to a track on the ceiling that holds up to 30% of her body weight.

As Alexis’ time in recovery grew, so did the strain on her family from medical bills. Dr. Patterson turned to the Casa Colina Foundation to request supplemental care, funded by donor contributions. “As a teacher and a small business owner, Kathy and I can’t afford this high level of care,” says Alexis’ father. “With the Casa Colina Foundation helping to cover her treatment, this place has given her a chance at life again.”

Alexis’ dream remains becoming an attorney with a specialty in international law. “It’s a little ways off,” she smiles. “I can see the progress. I’m proud of myself.”