David's story

David sitting in a wheelchair in the hospital lobby before discharge to home.

Growing by leaps and bounds

David Volkman and his girlfriend, Sandy, planned a great night out in Harrisburg -- dinner at Rock Bass Grill along the Susquehanna River and tickets to see the symphony perform “South Pacific.”

At 6:30 p.m. David left the restaurant to get the car. It was January, and he wanted to spare Sandy a cold walk in the dark.

As she waited, Sandy became concerned. There was no way, she thought, it should take this long. She left the restaurant and started walking. She didn’t make it far when she found David, sprawled in the street. The 73-year-old had been hit by a car.

Rushed to Holy Spirit Hospital, David slowly came to as he arrived at the emergency room. His leg ached terribly. He alternated between clarity and mental confusion. Scans revealed David suffered breaks to his leg and pelvic area, as well as bruising and bleeding on the brain. He had no memory of the accident, but police investigators later told Sandy he’d been hit by someone texting while driving.

As a result of his traumatic head injury, David was transferred to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. His brain swelled. A lack of sodium caused his cognitive deficits.

With medical management, David’s condition improved and he was admitted to Penn State Health Rehabilitation Hospital on January 29, four days after the accident. Though he was beginning to heal, David worried his life was over.

“I thought things were never going to be the same,” he said. “I had never broken anything and was terribly independent. I work full-time. My job is busy and fast-paced. I kept thinking, ‘how will I return to work and serve with walking and memory concerns?’ I was also trying to manage my pain. I didn’t feel in control and didn’t want people to visit and see how I was. It wasn’t me.”

David spent his entire career serving the educational interests of families throughout the state. After a long tenure as a teacher in, then superintendent of, the Susquehanna School District, he retired. In 2014, he became executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania State Department of Education. In this role, he assists Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera in supporting the state’s 500-plus school districts and 230 charter schools. He also serves on the state transportation committee, works with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and represents the department in a number of special projects.

When he started his rehabilitation program, David needed physical, occupational and speech therapy.  His right leg was broken in several places and he was in a full leg cast, unable to bear weight on it.

“My physician at Holy Spirit recommended the rehab hospital at Penn State because of their strong outcomes,” David said. “My team treated me in a direct way, telling me everything about what I needed to do. They reminded me I must continue to do the rehab training to heal my body and have my leg heal normally.”

David’s physical therapy focused on strengthening, balance and endurance. The exercises were also designed to prevent his left leg from weakening.

David believed his occupational therapy was some of the most important work he did.

“I grew by leaps and bounds in rehab. I was really interested in supporting myself. You never think you will be in an experience like this. I believe it is important to listen carefully to what the team members tell you. You need to depend on them, as they are here to help you, not hurt you or dissuade you. They help you progress and get home.”

David’s biggest recovery challenge was battling feelings of sadness and depression.

“I was hesitant to connect with people. But they reached out to me and it made a difference. I got cards from so many people: coworkers, former students and people I hadn’t seen in years.”

The kind thoughts lifted his spirits, as did visits from rehab physician Dr. Justin Hong.

“Dr. Hong assured me I was not dying, and my life was not over,” David said. “He answered all of my questions. We talked about how if I continued my rehab activity and maintained a regular schedule, I would make progress.”

Group occupational therapy, which focused on rebuilding strength in his arms and shoulders, reminded David that cooperation and a positive attitude were also critical factors in getting well.

“In occupational therapy, I noticed one of the other patients was not interested in throwing the ball with us. I recognized that negativity from earlier in my stay. I am so grateful that I did what they told me. I really didn’t know what to do when I started. At my turning point, I realized I need to be productive to flourish in both rehab and back in my environment at home or at work.”

David’s most significant physical milestone came when he could finally move his injured right leg.

“At first, I didn’t want to get out of my wheelchair,” David said. “The physical therapist had me get out, then taught me to hop and use my arms to power myself. It was phenomenal! I could hop (not walk) 18 steps, then sit down. That’s when I realized I could do it. While I was afraid I would not be successful, my therapist praised me and we celebrated those 18 steps.”

After nearly a month at the rehabilitation hospital, David was ready to head home. He’d gone from 18 hopping steps to walking with a walker, his physical therapist following behind with a wheelchair. He could independently care for personal needs and travel in his wheelchair to the hospital lobby. He also worked with Norway, the hospital’s therapy dog, and even got a haircut.

David departed for home in late February. As he settled in, he found the transition challenging.

“After my last weekend at rehab, the following Monday was really tough because I didn’t have weekend therapy. I knew then why my therapists had given me seven exercises to do at home. It was all corrective as needed, forcing me to extend my injured leg to strengthen it and use my knees individually. They helped me plan how I would do things at home because it would be different with less support.”

David continues working on his home exercises and is improving every day.