No place like home for Christmas

Sussex County Councilman Vance Phillips is home in Sussex County, just in time for Christmas. He had spent more than a month at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where he has been recovering from injuries sustained in an aircraft accident in Virginia in October. Phillips left Philadelphia late Tuesday morning and arrived home later that day.

On Sunday, Oct. 30, as Phillips was conducting a solo flight on a glider-like aircraft at a private airstrip in Amherst County, Va., the craft was involved in a landing-related accident.

Phillips was transported to Lynchburg General Hospital, and then airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, Va., where he was first listed in serious condition with a spinal-cord injury to the 12th thoracic vertebra (T-12). He was subsequently upgraded to fair condition and was later moved to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where he has been for more than a month.

Phillips told the Coastal Point on Tuesday that he is still trying to regain strength in his lower body. He said he is learning how to coordinate again between his brain and his legs and ankles, and feels as if he has taken great strides forward.

He said he can now get to and from bed without a wheelchair and he can carry about 75 percent of his body weight. When he started rehab in October, he was at about 50 percent, he explained.

“I’ve got a long way to go,” he added. “The prime mission is to allow me to be as independent as possible.”

Phillips said that, while he is learning to re-train his brain and regaining strength with the goal of walking again someday, he is simultaneously learning skills he would need if he would need the wheelchair forever.

“They are teaching me skills and teaching me to operate independently as a paraplegic, which, technically, I still am – like shower, go to the bathroom and eventually drive – if I don’t regain control of my lower body. But, I am hoping I don’t have to go there…”

His home care will initially consist of a therapist coming three days a week, and then he will continue on with outpatient rehabilitation, most likely in Salisbury, Md., he explained.

With a T-12 injury, he said, his spinal cord injury was very low, near the lumbar region of his body, so his challenges include impacts to his gastrointestinal system, which he said has been “sort of a depressing process.”

“That’s the one thing we all learn to control when we are 2, and it’s very hard on the psyche.”

The human body has 24 moveable vertebrae (from top to bottom): seven cervical vertebrae numbered C-1 to C-7, from top to bottom; 12 thoracic, or chest, vertebrae, numbered from T-1to T-12; and five lumbar vertebrae, numbered from L-1 to L-5. According to the Patient Education Institute Inc., the higher an injury occurs in the spinal column, the more affected the person will be.

Phillips explained that his good health before the accident has helped in his recovery. Not smoking or being a heavy drinker, and being in good shape, has most likely helped the process along, he said.

“A 21-year-old with the same T-12 injury that came to rehab the same day I did, I saw him walking with hand crutches when he left,” said Philips, adding that, while he has a long way to go, that potential was promising.

He said he could always feel his legs after the accident but just recently started to feel and move his ankles and toes – something he attributed to his therapist, his spine “waking up” and the “hundreds of prayers from Sussex Countians.”

“I can’t tell you how important those prayers were. I felt them, the prayers and the power.”

He explained that he was in the intensive care unit for four days and then the trauma center for another week before going to Philadelphia for rehabilitation, and the prayers and the cards gave him strength to carry on.

“It was so inspiring. It gave me hope,” he said.

About a week prior to being released to go home, Phillips was allowed to remove his “turtle shell,” a cast-like contraption that covered him from the waist up to his breastplate to prevent the vertebrae from moving around.

“At first, it was very refreshing, but after about three hours, the muscles that hadn’t been working all that time started revolting. I was in so much pain.”

He has since learned to not move so fast and to allow the “turtle shell” to carry some of the burden of his weight. He said he can go about six hours now without putting it back on to give the muscles a rest.

All in all, Phillips said, he feels he is at the turning point and has a lot of hope for the future.

In the beginning, he said, his goal was to stand by himself for two minutes, which he said felt like he had been “running for a mile.” When he was discharged, he could stand alone for about 15 minutes, which he would practice while playing a game with the therapist to keep his mind off the standing.

“I see progress, but it is slow,” he said. “It is not what I am used to. But getting home and smelling the sweet Sussex County air, stepping out and being able to take that deep breath… There is no place like home.”

Phillips said he has plans to return to Sussex County Council Chambers for the council’s Jan. 3 meeting.