Sherry Goes from Spinal Cord Injury, Surgery and Rehabilitation to Full Recovery, Part 2

After a catastrophic accident in 2013 left her paralyzed from the neck down, Sherry Embrey beat the odds to walk again. In Part 2 of her story, we hear about her postsurgical journey back to full mobility. Read part 1.

After recovering from surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital to repair her broken neck and relieve the pressure on her damaged spinal cord, Sherry Embrey was ready to participate in acute rehabilitation at the renowned Inova Rehabilitation Center at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. She began the long, difficult road back to regaining as much movement and sensation as she could.

When she started the rehabilitation process, Sherry recalled, “I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t change my position, I had no bladder control – I was like a baby, completely dependent on other people.”

But Sherry was determined to regain what the injury had taken from her. Every day for a year, rehabilitation was all she focused on. Although she had been retired before her fall, Sherry now had a new full-time “job” – rehabilitation. “I can’t speak highly enough about the acute rehabilitation team at Inova Mount Vernon,” Sherry said. “They are the most magnificent people.”

The Inova Rehabilitation Center at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital provides excellent care to help people recovery from major, disabling conditions with life-altering consequences. John Owusu, MBA, BSN, RN, Clinical Director, Unit 5B, Inpatient Rehabilitation, Inova Mount Vernon Hospital who was one of Sherry’s nurses during her inpatient rehabilitation at the center, calls the 67-bed inpatient rehabilitation facility a “gem.” He credits the multidisciplinary team’s expertise for helping patients like Sherry.

“We have a team of incredible therapists, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists and recreational therapists. Our nurses are phenomenal, caring individuals who love their work. Our neuropsychologists help patients cope with their new reality.  Our physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians do a great job partnering with physicians from many other specialties and disciplines to develop the treatment plan and guide the patient through it,” John said. Sherry needed the entire rehabilitative care team’s expertise as she recovered.

During her time at the Inova Rehabilitation Center at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, Sherry had three hours of intensive therapy every day. For two hours, Sherry worked with her occupational therapists to improve her ability to use her hands and do activities of daily living, like feeding, dressing, and bathing herself. One hour each day was devoted to physical therapy, where she worked to get her strength to progress towards her goals of walking again.

“The work that you have to do – there is no way I could ever describe how hard it is,” Sherry said. “The physical part is difficult, of course, but the mental part is even tougher. It’s a long journey, and you have to hang in there.”

Hang in there is just what Sherry did, and her perseverance paid off.

About a month after surgery for her spinal cord injury, Sherry was ready to transition from inpatient to a nursing home after which she went home and continued with in home rehabilitation. Once that was completed, she entered into outpatient rehabilitation and was allowed to begin driving. She went to outpatient rehabilitation several times a week for five months concluding with a whole year of rehabilitation in total.  In outpatient rehabilitation Sherry continued to work on walking, balance, core strength and fall prevention strategies with the outpatient team. Monika Stolze, PT, DPT, NCS, who is now the Program Manager of the Outpatient Specialty Rehabilitation Clinic at Inova Loudoun Hospital, worked with Sherry in 2013 and 2014.

“Sherry was pretty impaired at the beginning. She was having a lot of trouble walking and couldn’t get around the house at all. Her arms were also really weak,” Monika said. “But she worked so hard.”

During her year in outpatient rehab, Sherry continued to gain function little by little. Each milestone was a cause for celebration: The day she was able to feed herself with an adaptive tool. The day she could “wheelchair walk.” The day she wrote her name legibly. The day she took her first steps on her own. The day she drove her car once again.

At her last appointment, according to Monika, “Sherry was scoring 100 percent on every mobility-related evaluation we gave her.”

Inova Rehabilitation Center at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital is a key destination site for individuals like Sherry who have sustained neurological injury. “Our therapists, many of whom have advanced certification in rehabilitation for people with neurological injuries, are always striving to implement the latest, evidence-based practice and cutting-edge technology,” Monika said.

Today, at age 75, Sherry estimates that she has regained 95 to 98 percent of her previous function. “Anyone looking at me would not know anything had happened,” she said. She walks without a cane and can do everything she used to do.

To put this level of improvement in perspective, Sherry’s chances of walking again when she came to Inova were five to 10 percent, according to estimates from neurosurgeon John Hamilton, MD, PhD, Medical Director of the Inova Peripheral Nerve Program, Inova Health System; Co-Medical Director of the Inova Spine Program at Inova Fairfax Hospital; and Section Chief, Neurosurgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital, who performed Sherry’s surgery.

 When it comes to what accounted for her remarkable recovery, according to Dr. Hamilton, prompt diagnosis and surgical care, excellent postoperative care and state-of-the-art rehabilitation all played a part. The most important factor, however, was Sherry’s will to do whatever it took to get her function back. “She never stopped working, particularly in the early days. She never allowed herself to quit trying or to give up. She had the most determination of any patient I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Hamilton said. Sherry continues to check in regularly with Dr. Hamilton, who calls her his “star patient.”

Impressed with her determination and progress, Dr. Hamilton asked Sherry to volunteer as a peer mentor, visiting other acute rehabilitation patients who are recovering from spinal cord injuries. “Dr. Hamilton said I could help inspire other patients, because most people don’t put in the work to get to where I’ve gotten,” Sherry said. Sherry valued the opportunity to give back to others by sharing her experiences, and talking about her experiences helped her heal psychologically and emotionally from this traumatic experience.

In addition to a lot of hard work and humility, Sherry credits her faith with helping her through the journey. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I would walk and be normal again,” she said.

To learn more about the Inova Spine Program at Inova Neurosciences, visit or call 703-776-4700.

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