August 26, 2002


Pushing forward


Doctor calls on experience to bond with injured patients

Mark Reis The Gazette

Dr. Glen House wheels through the inpatient rehabilitation floor at Penrose Hospital. House lost the use of his legs in a skiing accident in college and works mostly with spinal cord patients.By Bill Radford The Gazette
Patients who have suffered a spinal-cord injury, whose lives have been turned upside-down in one devastating moment, may feel totally alone.

You have no idea what I'm going through, they'll tell their doctor.

They never say that, though, to Dr. Glen House, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Penrose Hospital. He does know. He's been there, too.

An accident nearly 13 years ago cost him the use of his legs. House, on Christmas break during his junior year at Texas A&M University, was skiing in Snowbird, Utah. He and a friend - "we were kind of self-described extreme skiers" - were on the last run of the day. House skied into a rock hidden by snow and slammed head-first into another boulder. The accident tore off his scalp, gave him a concussion and broke his neck at the seventh vertebra.

By the time help arrived, House was extremely hypothermic. His parents were called and warned he might not make it through the night.

Although he survived, months of rehabilitation lay ahead. The C-7 spinal-cord injury left him unable to walk. He can move his arms, but his hand dexterity is limited.

In general, the higher up the spinal cord an injury occurs, the greater the disability.

"One vertebra down, I'd have all my hand function and the world would be different," the 33-year-old House says. If the injury had struck a vertebra higher, he would have lost use of his triceps.

His memories of the first days after the accident are hazy. If a doctor told him it was likely he would never walk, he doesn't recall it. But, he says, "as weeks and weeks go by and nothing moves, you start to figure it's going to be this way."

House says he has always been "a pretty motivated person," and he had great support from family and friends. "The thing that was in my mind was whatever's going to happen, I'm going to deal with what we have now and hope for the best."

But that doesn't mean there was no looking back.

"In the first year, certainly there were times, really about every day, that the thought did cross my mind, why did this happen to me? If I just wouldn't have gone on that one slope, this wouldn't have happened."

He had been a pre-dental student and planned to become a maxillofacial and oral surgeon. His limited hand function dashed that dream. But while undergoing inpatient rehabilitation, a new dream was quickly born.

"I liked what I was seeing," he says. "I made that decision actually during rehab that I wanted to go into medical school and then go into a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation."

After completing his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M, he entered the University of Washington School of Medicine. He was the school's first student in a wheelchair. The biggest challenge was coping with his limited hand function in performing such tasks as assisting in surgery.

"They expected me to do what everyone else did," he says. "They didn't make any exceptions, but they did make accommodations." In surgery, for example, he used a sort of standing wheelchair.

The Texas-born House grew up in Boise, Idaho. It was during a return to Boise in his third year of medical school that he met his wife-to-be, Nikki. They had known of each other - but not really known each other - back in junior high.

"It didn't take very long once we started to date before I knew he was the one," Nikki says.

They married in between House completing medical school and beginning an internship in internal medicine in Salt Lake City. After that, he went on to a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and then a fellowship in spinal cord injury medicine at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey.

There he spent a year working with Dr. Steven Kirshblum. Kirshblum's patients include actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in an accident during an equestrian competition in 1995.

"He taught me so much about spinal cord medicine," House says of Kirshblum. "Even more, he taught me about being a person. He really, really cares about his patients."

Once his fellowship ended, House had planned on returning to Boise. But in looking for a possible backup, he turned to Colorado Springs, where a longtime friend lived. He learned about an opening at Penrose and visited the Springs with his wife.

"She loved it and that was it," he says. The Houses and their young daughter moved here last summer.

On Penrose Hospital's eighth floor, House works with spinal cord patients, stroke patients and others struggling to piece their shattered lives back together and regain whatever level of independence they can.

"It's very difficult to get credibility with a patient," says Dr. John Bissell, medical director of the rehab unit. "With Dr. House, credibility is almost instantaneous."

John McKenna ruptured his C-4 and C-5 vertebrae in a fall in February 2000. His injury is termed incomplete, meaning his disability is less than in a complete injury such as House's. McKenna, for example, can walk with the help of crutches.

McKenna became House's patient when he underwent rehabilitation after follow-up surgery in April this year.

When you suffer a spinal cord injury, McKenna says, "your whole life is changed in a matter of seconds."

But House didn't let his injury stop him, McKenna notes. "If I had to use a single word to describe him, it would be inspiring."

Patients often are curious about his story, House says, but are more likely to ask a nurse or physical therapist after he is gone rather than question him directly - though they're welcome to.

"Some people, it's the first thing they ask. People are so different."

It can be a bit tough maneuvering about a patient's room in his wheelchair, he says. But he rolls down the hallways faster than most people walk. And with the help of a few adaptations, such as a brace for writing and a special grip on his reflex hammer, he doesn't notice any problems from his limited dexterity.

"The way my life is today, I'm so used to it, I don't remember the other way," he says.

At nearly age 21/2, his daughter, Bentley, never has known the man he once was. For her, Daddy always has been in a wheelchair. She knows to push his chair over to him if he is on the couch and needs to get to the table, House says.

"Sometimes when we're at a restaurant or someplace and she sees someone else in a chair, she'll look at them really closely like that's supposed to be Daddy," Nikki House says.

It has been years, Glen House says, since the thought of "why me?" crossed his mind. Still, coping with his condition does become wearying.

"It's a way of life, but I struggle with things that other people don't struggle with on a daily basis. Getting up in the morning, from the time the alarm goes off to the time I'm ready for work, can take three hours. That's frustrating.

But once I'm up and in the chair, I go about my day pretty normally."

In his job, he always can find someone worse off than he is.

"Instead of looking at what you don't have," he says, "you start looking at what you do have."

As he told one patient years ago, "I know a lot of people who walk around every day who are not happy. So therefore, walking is not the answer to happiness."

Quote

"I made that decision actually during rehab that I wanted to go into medical school and then go into a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation."
Dr. Glen House, House specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Penrose Hospital

Contact information

Bill Radford may be reached at 636-0272 or comics@gazette.com

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