August 17, 2018
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‘Surgery was the easy part’: Maine woman relearns to live after paralysis

By Hadley Barndollar, Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — It was Jessica Cyr’s 37th birthday. She’d baked a lemon cake with blueberries to bring to her neighbor’s, where her kids played in the pool on a hot summer evening.

July 7, 2017. Cyr’s lucky number had always been 7.

“Not anymore, clearly,” she said Wednesday, as two physical therapists lifted her from a motorized wheelchair.

As night fell, Cyr, her husband and friends began to “horse around,” she said. Cyr dove into the pool, on the cusp of where the shallow meets the deep end. She hit the bottom. Conscious while floating in the water, Cyr couldn’t grasp why she was unable to stand up. She could only flail her head to signal something was wrong. Her husband Greg dove in and pulled her out.

The Kittery mother of three is now paralyzed from the chest down. For the last 10 months, she’s essentially had to relearn how to live.

Following the accident, Cyr was taken to Boston Medical Center where she underwent specialized surgery. Doctors determined she’d fractured her C6 vertebrae and needed a replacement for her C5.

“Right now, I have a piece of cadaver bone in my neck holding it all together with screws,” Cyr said. “The surgery was the easy part. It’s the post-op that was really a challenge.”

After her surgery, Cyr was plagued by urinary tract infections and pneumonia due to diminished lung capacity. “The whole time I was in the ICU, I was never free of infection,” she said. She would talk to her kids on the phone, but did not allow them to see her for a while.

Cyr said she remembers a distinct moment looking at her hands resting on a table, and realizing how different they looked. She hasn’t regained any fine motor skills yet, but does have good use of her arms.

“Registering all of those basic changes,” she said. “It was challenging just to see myself in how I’m different, but still the same. Your whole outlook on life changes because you always think these sort of accidents happen to other people, and then when it’s you, it makes you think twice about everything.”

After being released from Boston Medical Center, Cyr entered inpatient rehab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Massachusetts. She lived there until September 2017.

“Immediately, both my husband and I realized we were so calendar-focused and scheduled-focused up until that point,” said Cyr, whose children are ages 13, 11 and 5. “We were busy, an active family. Between him and I, we both worked full-time and three kids and a lot of activities. We do a lot in our community between our church, sporting events and schools. It was an immediate change of our whole philosophy living based on our schedule to just living literally almost minute by minute, survival.”

During a physical therapy session Wednesday at Project Walk in Stratham this week, Cyr spoke openly about her accident and the months since. Her loss of mobility has not darkened her spirits, nor her motive to “recover 100 percent.”

Cyr said medical professionals don’t give any sort of expectations to those with spinal cord injuries when it comes to levels of recovery. “I don’t know what the future brings, I’d like to be done with this,” she laughed. “I’d like to just get up and go about my business, take my dog for a walk.”

Cyr remains unfailingly honest. She does not question “Why me?” Rather, it’s her reality, and therefore, she must deal with it.

Cyr’s mom, Vicki Wentworth, drives her daughter to therapy each Wednesday. The rest of the week, Cyr has a personal care attendant who assists her after her husband leaves for work and provides much of her transportation.

“It’s amazing to see your daughter be able to make the changes she needs to,” Wentworth said. “It’s one of those life-altering seconds of her life where she made a wrong decision. But to come back, she’s amazing. She’s totally amazing.”

Wentworth said it takes a village to help Cyr in her day-to-day journey, and family is at the crux of that. “She’s had such good spirits, she’s never had a down day,” Wentworth said.

The greater Kittery community has been supportive beyond belief, Cyr said, with everyone from strangers to friends reaching out over the last 10 months.

“Just stopping in and checking on things, sending me a card with their phone number, neighbors I haven’t met,” Cyr said. “It’s been tremendous. We live in a very supportive community.”

When asked what she wanted the public to know about her condition, Cyr took the opportunity to address how “underserved” the disabled population is on the Seacoast. There is no transportation assistance in the area unless you’re on Medicaid, Cyr said, which leaves many with the financial burden of acquiring their own van. Most establishments and businesses are just not built for people like Cyr to access, and she wishes that wasn’t the case.

Cyr’s physical therapy at Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center opened by the family of Paralympian and now ESPN host Victoria Arlen, is not recognized or covered by insurance companies.

The Kittery Coffee House will hold a benefit for Cyr Saturday, May 12 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. to assist with therapy costs. The event will take place at the Second Christian Congregational United Church of Christ, 33 Government St. The suggested donation is $5, and food donations are being accepted that night for End 68 Hours of Hunger. The host band is Shades O’ Grass.

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