Thrive by IU Health

December 14, 2022

From a wheelchair to a 5K

IU Health White Memorial Hospital

From a wheelchair to a 5K

As Debra Long, secretary for Rehabilitation Services at IU Health White Memorial in Monticello, bounces around her office assisting patients, answering phones and managing schedules, it is hard to believe a few short months ago she was in a wheelchair.

Full of energy, she also helps in the Emergency department, the hospital front desk and in the medical-surgical unit as needed.

“Debra is a bright spot in our department,” shares Sara Phelps, supervisor of the Rehabilitation department. “One of her gifts is getting to know others and helping them to feel seen and acknowledged. She is quick to share her personal experiences with others who may have similar concerns in order to encourage them to continue to push forward and improve. She demonstrates what's possible with hard work and a positive attitude.”

“I figure there are many ways I can help, so I try my best,” shares Long.

Debra Long

The fall that lead to the wheelchair

In February, Long fell in a parking lot. Her ankle hurt but she figured it was a sprain that would eventually heal. The rehabilitation team continually encouraged her to go to the doctor. After a few weeks in pain, she finally relented. An MRI showed her ankle was ruptured in five spots and a tendon needed to be completely repaired.

The injury was just another setback in a long line of health issues for Long. As a child she endured the usual sprains, strains and broken bones—she reports that she was a clumsy kid. While in college she had seizures and would pass out. There were many diagnoses. She dropped out of school twice to focus on her medical issues. She ended up at the Mayo Clinic where, after 18 months, she was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)—a condition that causes one’s heart to beat faster than normal when transitioning from lying down to standing up.

“I try not to let my diagnoses get to me,” shares Long. “They do not define me.”

Normally, the body’s autonomic nervous system balances heart rate and blood pressure to keep blood flowing at a healthy pace, no matter what position the body is in. For individuals with POTS, the body can’t coordinate the balancing act of blood vessel constriction (squeezing) and heart rate response. This means that the body can’t keep blood pressure steady and stable, leading to a variety of symptoms such as a fast heart rate, dizziness, fainting, fatigue and migraines—all experienced by Long.

The physicians at Mayo told her they would have diagnosed her POTS sooner if they had known she had cerebral palsy (CP). Long did not know she had CP which is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. It was a diagnosis she had a tough time wrapping her head around, but now makes some sense to her—like her really tight Achilles and some intellectual challenges.

“When things don’t make sense to me, I have always figured out a way to solve the problem,” shares Long. “I figure out how to accommodate physically and mentally to my surroundings and my work. I always have a plan A, B, C and D.”

The road to the 5K

Long’s ankle surgery in April 2022 required her to go non-weight baring for three months. Long begrudgingly took two and a half weeks off for the surgery and returned to work alternating between a wheelchair, a knee scooter, crutches and simply hopping around.

DEbra Long reading with her daughter after surgery.

“I have one speed, which is ‘go,’” explains Long. “I love my job. I love making a difference in patients’ lives. I thrive on people. I don’t thrive being by myself.”

Once she was cleared to start rehabilitation, she worked with physical therapist Mindy Gutwein at White Memorial. Long’s goals were to run and chase her two-year-old daughter and complete a 5K—something she thought she would ever be able to do.

“When your co-workers become your patients, you never know how it will go,” shares Gutwein. “Debra was an excellent patient and she worked HARD. She always gave 110%, and I knew that if her goal was to walk a 5K, then I wanted to help make it happen. I jokingly told her she had better not make it a goal if she didn’t want me to hold her to it.”

Once she got rid of her crutches, Long and Gutwein started training for that 5K by walking every day at lunch. Long would also walk in the evenings with her family. In October, the pair finished the Hot Cider Hustle 5k in one hour, 55 seconds, narrowly missing their goal of one hour.

“She demonstrated unwavering grit and determination throughout her rehab, and I'm so happy she was able to complete a 5K,” says Gutwein.

Mindy Gutwein and Debra Long crossing the finish line.

“I am very proud that we did it,” shares Long. “I plan to participate every year.”

While there is no cure for POTS or CP, several treatments and lifestyle changes can help manage the symptoms.

“God had other plans for me,” explains Long. “I don’t question it; I just go with it.”

Her future plans? Complete a master’s degree, add to her family and someday run a hospital.

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