Firefighter Wins Spain Rehab Center Ambassador of Hope Award

Caleb Andrews

Each year, UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center (SRC) recognizes a disabled individual whose courage and determination inspire hope in others who face similar challenges. The 2022 recipient of the SRC Ambassador of Hope Award is Caleb Andrews, a 28-year-old firefighter/paramedic with the Vestavia Hills Fire Department.

Some patients who undergo therapy for physical disabilities have had a severe injury or were born with a disabling condition, while others may suffer an extreme and unexpected medical event that results in disability. In summer 2021, Andrews experienced a sudden and lifechanging event, and he clearly recalls just how strange, painful, and frightening that moment was.

“I was experiencing pain in my back that felt like a severe muscle cramp,” Andrews says. “It became incredibly intense until, within about 30 minutes, I was having paralysis from my chest down. To say I was scared doesn’t really cover the emotions I was feeling.”

Days Without Movement

Andrews didn’t know it at the time, but he had suffered a spinal stroke. This is a rare condition that stops blood flow to the spinal cord and accounts for fewer than 2% of all strokes. Most spinal strokes are caused by blood clots or other disruptions in the blood supply. A lack of blood flow to the complex system of vessels in the spine can damage tissues and may block or alter nerve signals that move along the spinal cord. That interruption causes paralysis.

After spending a week on the neurological floor at UAB Hospital, Andrews was moved to SRC. He was there for two days when he regained slight movement in his lower extremities.

“I went for days without any movement below the torso at all,” Andrews recalls. “I think it was 10 days after the stroke I was able to move my big toe ever so slightly. Peter Chaponis, my physical therapist at Spain, told me he thought he detected movement, but I suspected he was just trying to give me hope. But hope was something I could definitely use, because it lit a fire in me to push forward. Later that evening, I was able to replicate the movement while my wife held my foot. It was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. She never left my side and was an absolute rock star during all of this.”

Meeting Challenges

Andrews says he immediately felt that the therapy regimen his SRC care team developed would be both a treatment and a challenge. He focused on what he says was a key advantage in meeting that challenge.

“I was already in good physical shape as a firefighter,” Andrews says. “It was obvious that my upper-body strength would be crucial for recovery, since I had no control below my chest when I began therapy. At first, I couldn’t sit up on the side of the bed or get dressed on my own. My brain knew what to do, but my body wouldn’t follow commands. I had done CrossFit each day prior to the stroke, so I wanted to continue as much exercise as possible. My PT and OT would allow me to scale our daily workouts from the gym to my therapy, so I could do that while lying on a table or the floor.”

Andrews says there also was a mental challenge in facing his situation, especially after his inpatient stay at SRC ended and outpatient therapy began.

“My early goal was to try to mentally move past this event,” Andrews says. “I was reminding myself that I was young enough, in good enough physical shape, and getting excellent medical care, so there was hope. I relied on God heavily to get me through each day. Whenever I felt like giving up, a new muscle movement or a comment from a medical professional would give me strength to continue. It was obvious that God was working in my life.”

Andrews emphasizes that his co-workers at the fire department were crucial to his recovery. He returned to light-duty administrative work in the fall, and thanks to ongoing physical therapy, he says he “ditched the wheelchair” in spring 2022.

“I use the term ‘walking’ very loosely in regard to my first days without a wheelchair,” he says. “I could get down the hallway for a short distance by using a walker, but it was all weight-bearing on the walker, no doubt about it. But each day would get a little bit better, and that kept me going.”

Aiming for 100%

By summer 2022, Andrews had made enough progress that he could walk using forearm crutches, and later he was able to move to a single cane. Today, he usually walks unassisted at least one mile daily, although he says his legs feel heavy after a long period of standing. He’s taken plenty of falls in his mission to “get all the way back to 100%.”

“My doctors and therapists cringe when I share this, but I accepted the fact that I’m going to fall down if I plan on getting better,” Andrews says. “The stroke did not turn my entire body into glass, so I figure I can handle it. The progress I make is worth it. You can’t imagine the boost that comes from being able to walk a full flight of stairs now.”

Andrews says he has nothing but gratitude for all those who helped him during his recovery journey, especially his physical therapists (PTs) and his occupational therapists (OTs).

“I want to give special shout-outs to my PTs Peter Chaponis and Nikki Kirby, OTs Alex Hodges and Nancy Mullen, and friends, family, and co-workers for all they have done for me throughout this experience.”

Obvious Determination

SRC Occupational Therapist Alex Hodges remembers Andrews’ eagerness to tackle challenges right away.

“What I recall most of all about Caleb is that, on day one, his determination to overcome his condition was already in full force,” Hodges says. “It’s still there, of course. Sometimes I would run into him outside of my work here at Spain, and it was obvious that he was making major advances in recovery on his own. That’s a lot of progress from his first day, when he couldn’t even sit up in a wheelchair.”

It was Hodges who nominated Andrews for the SRC Ambassador of Hope Award. She says arranging the presentation called for some secrecy.

“Caleb is sort of shy, so the idea of a Zoom presentation before about 80 medical professionals didn’t sound like something he would be eager to do,” Hodges says. “I told him I had a young patient who might benefit from talking to him via a Zoom call. So when he made the call, we were all there to present the award. He was probably ready to kill me. But we all wanted to recognize his sheer determination, and everyone at Spain Rehab is so proud of his progress.”

Physical Therapist Nikki Kirby agrees that Andrews has been an excellent example of self-motivation.

“It has been an honor to be a part of Caleb’s rehab team and see the results of his dedication and hard work,” Kirby says. “He is extremely self-motivated, gives 100% effort, and continues to set new challenging goals for himself. I have never once heard him say ‘I can’t’ during a therapy session.”

Andrews insists that his goals come down to one thing: returning some day to full duty at work. He says it’s the main task on his mind as he continues striving toward complete recovery.

“I’m a firefighter and a paramedic,” he says. “That’s where my heart is, and it’s my main drive for a full recovery. I may die trying, but I plan to get back on that firetruck. In my heart, I feel like that’s going to happen.”

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