Open Accessibility Menu

The Extra Mile

  • Author: Gary W
  • Date Submitted: Sep 21, 2021

When Gary Willis reflects on the care he has received at Casa Colina, the 51-year-old Riverside resident considers his time as a father of three children, aged high school to post-college.

“As a parent, you know the school teachers who are there because they love kids, and then the teachers who are there just to make a check,” he says. “God bless them all, but there’s a difference.”

He’s right. Gary’s experience in both inpatient and outpatient services at Casa Colina has taught him the difference between typical healthcare workers who do their jobs well, versus those who go truly above and beyond. Casa Colina physicians, therapists, and nurses are truly invested in patient care, collaborating daily to review and adjust treatment plans that keep individuals like Gary on the path toward the best possible outcome.

“The people at Casa Colina—everyone I encounter there really cares,” says Gary. “I see it from the people I check in with, through all the people I work with in treatment.”

In May 2018, Gary was experiencing worsening lower-extremity numbness that eventually required him to use a wheelchair. He was diagnosed with multiple meningioma on his thoracic spine, a condition that affects just 10,000 Americans per year. While not common, spinal tumors are treated by an established procedure known as a surgical resection, which removes tumor tissue from around or within the spinal column. His family knew it was a high-risk procedure due to the spine’s sensitive nature. That August, Gary agreed to undergo the surgery at an area hospital.

Though surgeons managed to remove the growths, Gary nearly died during the procedure due to complications and bleeding. During his subsequent hospital stay, Gary developed both respiratory and renal failure, putting him in intensive care for three months. And, he remained paraplegic, unable to move from the waist down.

It would be a difficult road back to regaining strength and functional independence—not to mention his confidence and enjoyment of life.

By early 2019, Gary was medically stable enough to enter a local inpatient rehabilitation facility. His gains there were minimal. His family soon realized he would need a more rigorous and specialized therapy approach to improve core strength and practice essentials like wheelchair transfers and other activities of daily living. After research and recommendations, he and his family found Casa Colina and inquired about inpatient rehabilitation.

He arrived at Casa Colina Hospital in April 2019, staying for nearly two months. With an 85-year history of treating all manners of disabling injury and illness, including rare diagnoses like Gary’s, Casa Colina proved to be a good fit. With the help of our expert clinicians and state-of-the-art inpatient technology and equipment, Gary started on a new path to more meaningful rehabilitation. With three daily hours of multidisciplinary therapies, a minimum of five days per week, Gary and his family began to see the accelerated effect of intensive therapy.

Gary credits not only the inpatient therapy teams but his physician, Dr. Yong Lee, and the rest of the hospital staff.

“He and the nurses were great,” he says. “It was a tough time for me and my family. I’m so thankful for everyone in inpatient.”

Despite feeling isolated due to his medical situation, Gary enjoyed a special camaraderie with his caregivers and among fellow inpatients recovering from spinal cord and other injuries. “When I first got there I was a little timid because I didn’t really know what was going on. But over time, it’s really a place where you can let your hair down and be yourself.”

Now that he’s moved on to outpatient care at Casa Colina, Gary relishes the weekly challenges of his physical therapy sessions, which have helped him improve mobility using his wheelchair. The therapy is also giving Gary the confidence he needs to better reintegrate into family life and reclaim his career as a certified public accountant.

“I approach it by trying to give my best every time I’m in there,” says Gary, who now enjoys doing accounting work part-time from home. “I try to be as aggressive as I can and do as much as I can.”

Exercises like the RTI Bike provide functional electrical stimulation to help him improve muscle coordination, strength, and endurance. His therapists also work with him on back and leg stretching that decreases discomfort and improves flexibility. In particular, Gary’s main physical therapist, Twyla Evano, pushes him to give 100% and reminds him that the gains he makes now will pay off later in the form of increased independence—and get him closer to his ultimate goal: to walk again. Gary is currently working hard on assisted standing and walking with equipment like the standing frame and the Rifton TRAM.

“Because Gary views his time here as a blessing, he works incredibly hard during his therapy sessions, and that keeps me on my toes to push him to improve,” says Evano. “Gary is motivated to be the best provider for his family that he can be. Gary and I work as a team to maximize his ability to be the best he can physically, for himself and for his family.”