Battling Back

Newnan resident recovering from accident


With the help of physical therapy intern Solomon Agxeman, Loretta Hightower of Newnan prepares to use an exercise bicycle in the therapy gym at Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Hospital. Hightower spent a couple weeks there regaining her strength after nearly a month on a respirator following a traffic accident in December 2012. 

As the old saying goes, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Without a doubt, life handed a lemon to Newnan resident Loretta Hightower on Dec. 22, 2012. Returning from a trip to Macon with her granddaughter, Hightower was “t-boned” coming off Interstate 75 at the Route 16 exit. Her injuries included a crushed pelvis, a fractured hip, a bruised spleen, a torn kidney, broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

Life Flight carried her to Atlanta Medical Center. As if her injuries were not bad enough, a few days later she developed the mysterious condition known as Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome. This syndrome brought on complete respiratory arrest on Dec. 25. To save her life, Atlanta Medical Center gave her a tracheotomy and placed her on a respirator.

The respirator kept her alive, and her body began to heal. Fortunately, Hightower’s 5-year-old granddaughter received only minor bruises in the crash.

By mid January 2013, Hightower’s condition had stabilized, but she still needed the respirator. All attempts to remove the respiratory support had failed, and the time had come for her to be transferred to a long-term acute care setting until she could breathe on her own again. According to Russell Hightower, Loretta’s husband, Atlanta Medical Center wanted to send her to another downtown Atlanta hospital, but they chose Roosevelt Warm Springs in Warm Springs, Ga., instead because they knew others who had been treated there.

Hightower was admitted to the Roosevelt Warm Springs Long Term Acute Care Hospital on Jan. 19. Seventy-two hours later, the staff began the delicate process of “weaning” her from the respirator once again.

This time they succeeded.

Responding to changing health care regulations, the Roosevelt Warm Springs Hospital of old divided itself into two different hospitals in 2007: the Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Hospital and the Roosevelt Warm Springs Long Term Acute Care Hospital, each with different staffs, lengths of stay and admission requirements.

Because caring for ventilator patients is a key component of long term acute care programs, Roosevelt Warm Springs opened a new three-bed respirator unit in February 2011, harkening back to the polio era, when Roosevelt Institute cared for patients in iron lungs. Since then, Roosevelt Institute has admitted 20 ventilator patients with an 80 percent successful weaning rate.

Hightower is the most recent success story, said Roosevelt Institute officials.

Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or ARDS, is a mysterious phenomenon that occurs in adults after a traumatic injury, said Cindy Freed, the physician in charge of Hightower’s care at Roosevelt Warm Springs.

“Not every patient recovers from ARDS,” Freed said. “Some people end up on vents for months trying to heal from it. Aside from respirator support, there is little that medicine can do for the condition.”

In Hightower’s case, however, her lungs were already clearing up when she arrived at Warm Springs. She was ready to begin the process of breathing on her own again.

“Our first goal for Ms. Hightower was to get her talking again,” said Larry Ranels, a respiratory therapist on the RWS staff. “One of the things we have learned when dealing with tracheotomy patients is that getting them talking again gives them hope. She cried after speaking her first words and said she had been wondering since the wreck if she would ever be able to talk again. Hearing their loved one speak also comforts the family,” Ranels said.

The first days of a ventilator patient stay at Warm Springs are spent establishing baseline measurements of their respiration. Once these baselines are established, the staff can begin gradually reducing respiratory support. Hightower was completely weaned by Jan. 25. The staff removed her tracheotomy tube on Feb. 6.

Respirator treatment is always an ordeal. Going on the respirator, patients must learn to cooperate with the machine while at the same time dealing with any other pain or discomfort associated with their illness. In Hightower’s case, Atlanta Medical Center put her into “chemical paralysis” to ensure that she would not fight the system. She remained in chemical paralysis for 12 days. Then, when it is time to stop using the respirator, patients often feel extreme anxiety.

Hightower, a paramedic/EMT by profession, greatly appreciated the gentle and reassuring way the Roosevelt Warm Springs staff explained every step of the process.

“Larry,” she said, “made it very acceptable. He explained everything before he did it.” Hightower was also impressed with the sterile technique. “They kept everything clean,” she said. Sterile technique is particularly important in respirator care because of the constant threat of pneumonia. “Here at Roosevelt Institute they were really aggressive with the antibiotic therapy at the slightest sign of pneumonia.”

On Feb. 14, she transferred to the Roosevelt Warm Springs Inpatient Rehabilitation Hospital to continue her recovery. After spending a couple weeks getting her strength back and walking again, Hightower returned to her home in Newnan on Feb. 28.

Just before the traffic accident, Hightower had found work in the burgeoning movie business in Georgia. For many years the state has aggressively encouraged film producers to shoot their movies in Georgia. Hightower worked a couple days on the set of the “Hunger Games” sequel and then for a couple months on the set of “Ride-Along,” a police drama starring Ice Cube, Kevin Hart and John Leguizamo. She has been assured of more work whenever she is ready to return.

Hightower made remarkable progress at Roosevelt Warm Springs, but will need to continue her therapy for several more months before she can contemplate going back to work.

According to Dr. Freed, it often takes a year for patients to recover from injuries like Hightower received. “Surgeons cannot set factures of the pelvis like hers. The fractures must heal as they are, and they do not always heal like new but in ways that can affect a person’s gait and balance over time,” Freed said. “We will have to wait and see what happens.”

“In the meantime, she is doing great,” Freed said. “She gets a gold star from me for her motivation and determination. There is no reason to think that she will not be back on a movie set in the future.”

At home Hightower is continuing to work on her recovery with regular exercise and therapy.

“During those first days on the respirator, in the darkest hours of the night, it was prayer and my belief in God that kept me going,” she said. “Coming to Warm Springs has been nothing but a blessing,” she continued. “With the support of my family, my friends and the staff of Roosevelt Institute, I have learned that I am able to do what it takes to make a full recovery.”

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