Jeralyn Buchan: Hard Work, Miraculous Change

At 36, the last thing busy wife and mom Jeralyn Buchan thought she’d have to do was learn how to speak, eat her food, or walk again.

After she developed a tumor on her brain stem in 2010 and had surgery to remove it, she was left with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, and severe ataxia, or loss of control of her body’s movements.

“I went from totally independent to the next day, waking up and realizing that I couldn’t even swallow. I had a feeding tube. I was in a wheelchair,” says Buchan. “My vision had changed, almost like I was cross-eyed. It’s all controlled by the brain stem. I did not really understand what had happened to me.”

She faced a long road to recovery, but with extensive rehabilitation at HPRC’s Main Street Village location with her physical therapist, Laura Sherwood, and occupational therapist, Elizabeth Cain, the Lumpkin resident has made amazing progress. Buchan can walk on unpaved roads near her house without anyone’s help, talks with little trace of her illness’ effects, and cares for her two growing daughters. The only thing she can’t do is drive, she says.

Loss of Independence

In the prime of life, she’d lost her independence in just about every way, Buchan recalls. It was devastating.

“The only way I could communicate at first was this board that my husband got me, with letters I could point to. The first thing I spelled out was, ‘I am still smart.’ I wanted them to know,” she says. “I was in the hospital at Thanksgiving, and I remember that I could not even eat anything. I thought, ‘What in the world?’”

Steroids therapy gave Buchan a rare psychotic reaction, so her husband flew her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for treatment and intensive therapy, which was “very hard to do,” she recalls. She needed surgeries to restore her eye alignment. After therapy in clinics in Phenix City, Alabama, and Atlanta, she came to HPRC in Columbus to start physical and occupational therapy in 2012. She knew there would be no quick fixes.

“It’s not like I can have therapy for one week and be done with it. I have to have this for the rest of my life,” she says. Buchan even had to battle with her insurance company to cover the extensive therapy she needed to become independent again, because they said her situation was no longer catastrophic. “But me and my family’s lives were catastrophically changed forever.”

In her first physical therapy sessions at HPRC, Buchan was “a little timid and unsure of herself,” says Sherwood, who has worked with her for more than two and a half years. “She was still very unstable and having to walk on a walker for all of her ambulation. She was also very eager to get better, so she could be more active like she used to be, especially with two young children.”

Sherwood continues to give her a variety of tasks to master, including creating obstacles so she builds arm and leg strength, and exercises both on a treadmill and outdoors. Variety not only improves her mobility and steadiness, but also keeps her from getting bored with therapy, says Buchan.

“I like to be challenged. She has me go out into the yard at the clinic and pick up pinecones, going up and down. Working with Laura, my balance is now to the point where I can do that,” she says. “When I came to her, I was in a walker. But about a month ago, I walked from my house to my sister-in-law’s house, which is about a half-mile. Yes, my husband was with me, but I never thought I’d be able to do that. People may say a half-mile is nothing, but to me, it’s a marathon!”

Hard Work, Miraculous Change

Long stretches in a hospital bed weakened her muscles, so Buchan has worked hard to restore her strength and muscle mass. She continues both physical and occupational therapy to improve deficits in the use of her right, upper extremity, which affects her abilities to perform daily tasks like walking or using a pen.

“I have to strengthen my right side. My muscles now work, but my right leg is weak, so I put all of my weight on my left leg instead of balancing my weight,” she says. In addition to her physical therapy, she continues occupational therapy to improve the motor skills in her right hand so she can write. “I’m right-handed, so I tried and can do some things with my left hand, but I couldn’t write. On my right side, my leg is weak and so is my hand. Earlier, I was doing girl push-ups, but now, I can do men’s push-ups.”

Her great progress is the result of Buchan’s strong will and work ethic, says Cain, her occupational therapist. From the start, she knew she had a patient who would be likely to succeed, she says.

“Jeralyn has overcome so many obstacles since the beginning of her treatments with Occupational Therapy. She keeps a notebook of all of her exercises and brings them to each therapy session,” says Cain. “She brings such joy and enthusiasm to everyone around her with her infectious, positive outlook on life. She’s able to do just about anything, and is able to control the ataxia that has limited her daily activities. Seeing her progress and achieve her goals will burn in my memory forever.”

What keeps Buchan going through years of therapy at HPRC? For her, it’s all about being there for her daughters, now 8 and 11.

“I do have my pity parties from time to time, and Laura and Elizabeth see that. It’s so not fair, but then I get over it, and I go on,” says Buchan. “I have often thought, ‘If I don’t keep trying, then I won’t be able to walk.’ Physical and occupational therapy are so important. It takes a special type of person to be a therapist. Every patient is different, and they have to adapt to that. They do a miraculous job just keeping my spirits up so I can do what I have to do.”

At HPRC, therapists don’t just rehabilitate their patients’ physical strength or skills, but help them stay focused on their long-term goals, like walking their children to the school bus.

“Even though we struggle some days to find motivation in the both of us—patient and therapist—the small milestones make it all worth it,” says Sherwood. “My patients are why I wanted to become a therapist. You become a part of each other’s lives. Knowing that you helped them achieve something they have been wanting to do so badly is abundantly satisfying.”

Buchan appreciates the commitment that her two therapists at HPRC offer her week in and week out.

“They have to be so patient. They know that it’s going to take a long time. Some days, you see nothing happening. Then one day, a miraculous change happens in how you can do things,” she says. “I just love to go to therapy! I love to talk to people. The only way to get through this is to be positive.”

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