The Miracle Man
The first miracle came as Jim Grasse lay unconscious on a Florida street, choking on his own tongue.
Then 60 years old in 2002, Grasse had been out for his usual morning bike ride. He had been exercising nearly every day for 40 years, and there was nothing abnormal about this particular April day. The sun shined bright, and Grasse had dismounted his bicycle to cross the street. That's the last thing he remembers before waking up in a hospital recovery room.
But a lot happened in between. Including a couple of miracles that Grasse believes God influenced.
The second miracle was that a physician witnessed the crash. That wouldn't have been so out of the ordinary and might border on coincidental except for the fact that the physician had no business being at the crash site, Grasse says. The physician's wife was usually the one to drive their daughter to school. But, for whatever reason, the physician, a Green Beret medic, happened to be at the intersection as a teenager driving a speeding car crashed into Grasse, hurling him 100 feet through the air.
After impact, Grasse's tongue relaxed enough to block his airway, which is why he passed out. It was not because he wasn't wearing a helmet, which could be considered the third miracle.
"I didn't have a helmet on," Grasse says. "My head hit the windshield and I had no brain damage or anything like that. I did have a small cut on my head as a result of hitting the windshield, but that was it."
The physician who saw the crash was able to move Grasse's tongue and keep him alive until an ambulance arrived, says Grasse's eventual occupational therapist Kimberly Twiss, MHS, OT/L.
Still, things weren't looking good for Grasse. He had compound fractures in both his lower extremities and a nonunion break in one leg, meaning his lower leg was essentially dangling free. Grasse also had a severe right upper-extremity fracture and six broken ribs, Twiss says.
But the fourth miracle came in the emergency room. And if it hadn't come, Grasse is convinced he'd be dead. The miracle was that a renowned surgeon in Florida happened to be the one to care for Grasse that morning.
"With his reputation, and with his skill and everything, he doesn't work emergency room situations. But that day he was in the emergency room. So he tended to me and put me back together and everything."
After surgery, Grasse was in the hospital for 2 weeks before being transferred to a Genesis Rehabilitation Services clinic.
While there would eventually be one more miracle, the nonunion break unexpectedly reconnecting after Grasse's church prayed for it, soon only hard work in therapy would make the difference in his recovery.
When Twiss first met Grasse, she found a broken man—physically and emotionally. After all, not only was Grasse's mobility in question, so was his style. He was known for wearing a cowboy hat and matching boots. That was kind of his thing. But physicians told him that he might not be able to squeeze into cowboy boots ever again.
"He kind of had given up," Twiss says. "When you are so independent, you're a man who was riding a bike and engaged in society, very involved in his church, and then you hear you just can't do those things anymore I think it just crushed his spirit."
What didn't help, Twiss says, was that some disciplines of therapy believed they could be of no help to Grasse. If he couldn't move and stubbornly refused to try, what could they do? But occupational therapy was different.
"He was very limited with what he could do with his lower extremities, so really OT was the caring discipline," Twiss says. "The last thing anyone could do with this man was give up because you just saw huge potential. You are like, okay, wait a minute. If we give up now, this guy is going to give up. So I would make sure that we did a lot of things to work with what we could work with, some strategies for trying to be able to dress himself, trying to be able to take care of himself to figure out if he could seat himself with his left arm. We even worked on fine motor writing with his left hand."
Since Grasse couldn't use his legs, Twiss focused on what Grasse could do with his hands. For 4 weeks they worked on endurance and fine motor coordination in his left arm because his right arm was broken and the physicians weren't sure Grasse would ever regain function in it. If that was going to be the case, Twiss wanted to make sure Grasse could function by whatever other means were necessary.
Grasse says he can't specifically recall the differences between all the therapists who worked with him. But he recognizes that they helped. And one of the more powerful moments he recalls from therapy, a moment that changed his attitude, just happens to be a moment working with an OT.
"She was working with me on my hands. She would put playing cards on a table and I would have to try and pick one up, and I couldn't do it. She had coins on the table, and I couldn't pick those coins up, not to begin with. Having said that, she would catch me sliding the cards off the table and picking them up that way instead of picking them up straight off the table. She would call me Mr. Compensation," Grasse recalls. "When they would ask me to do something like that that I couldn't do, emotionally I would break down and cry, because I had been doing those things for my entire life. At that point in time, with the hand thing in particular, when I was pretty much down and out, I had a greater appreciation for people that are handicapped than I had before."
That realization motivated Grasse.
"I said, 'I am not going to live this way. Whatever it takes, that's what I am going to do.' So I started taking my rehab more seriously."
Twiss said OT provided confidence for Grasse because it forced him to actually accomplish tasks.
"OTs try to step back and look and say, 'You know, we are going to make you independent. Whether it may look funny to someone else, you are going to be able to do this,'" she says. "We are always trying to see what we can make of the situation instead of dealing with the consequences of the situation."
Grasse was in rehabilitation continually for 8 months. During that time there were lots of ups and downs. One major downer, Twiss recalls, was about 1 month after surgery when Grasse had his external fixators removed. He was thinking that day would be glorious, a surge toward independence. In reality, it was the opposite, a reminder of how far he still had to go.
"He was thinking 'I'll get these off, get ready to move again.' It's not that way when you are recovering. That's when it all starts because that's when you can do the next step. So basically we just continued to do things with him. He slowly got movement of his arms, we did a lot of range exercises. We had a lot of range to try to regain, because he had lost so much. We had a lot of strength to regain. Once his wrist started healing we were able to do a lot of trunk control," Twiss said.
Grasse's therapy team started calling him the Miracle Man because of how far and how quickly he'd come. Even still, physicians prognosticated that Grasse would remain in a wheelchair.
Then came July 4––Independence Day. Twiss had invited Grasse's family to come to the clinic to surprise him. It was this day that the therapy team had decided Grasse was ready to take his first steps.
"That was a real struggle. When I was lying in bed and they said, 'You are going to have to learn to walk all over again.' I said, 'How stupid is that? I know how to walk,'" Grasse recalls. "But it took every ounce of energy that I could muster in order to be able to do that. There was also a great feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment."
In November, Grasse was released from inpatient therapy.
"I put my cowboy boots on and walked out of there." The Miracle Man was still going. He signed up for a gym membership and continued his own therapy regimen. A decade later, he's back to working out 5 days a week.
"At this point in time if you look at me you would never know that I was in an accident, the kind of accident that I was in."
Of course, even the Miracle Man has a wife. And that wife has certain opinions about bikes.
"I ride my bike. But my wife told me that I go out of the subdivision that's grounds for divorce," he says with a laugh. "But I ride, it's not a problem. That first day I rode again? I didn't have any doubts or thoughts or anything like that. I just got on and away I went."
Andrew Waite is the associate editor of OT Practice. He can be reached at email@example.com.