Spinal cord injury won't stop Crafton man from living

Doug Gulasy
| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Paul Hickling remembers the moment a neurologist told him he wouldn't be able to walk or use his arms again.

“I threw him out of the room,” said Hickling, 55, of Crafton. “I said, ‘how dare you tell somebody that, that they're never going to walk again!' Because at that point, I could have just decided I'm just going to lay in bed the rest of my life.”

That didn't happen.

Hickling, who suffered a spinal cord injury in April 2010 and spent the next several months in various hospitals and treatment facilities, eventually regained that all-important ability.

While Hickling still can't feel temperature or pain from his chest down, he has the ability to walk and has limited use of his arms and hands. He still is classified as a quadriplegic because he doesn't have full use of all his limbs, but that's a far cry from what could have been.

Hickling's injury is between the C6 and C7 levels of his spinal cord. Injuries at that level of the spinal cord typically affect hands, wrists and arms but also can affect trunk and leg use.

“Every doctor I've talked to says he's an anomaly,” said his mother, Dolores Hickling, 79. “The injury he has is usually associated with a gunshot wound to the spine or a knife to the spine . . . some traumatic injury to the spine. But he was simply sitting on the couch, watching TV.”

The injury occurred on April 25, 2010, when Hickling was at his home in Crafton. While putting items back into his freezer after defrosting it, Hickling felt a “little tingle” in the back of his neck.

“I didn't know what it was,” he said. “I thought I pulled something, moving the wrong way or whatever.”

Hickling visited his chiropractor the next morning and had X-rays taken. On his way home, Hickling felt tingling in his arms and chest. He eventually couldn't keep his back straight without pain.

That led to a trip to St. Clair Hospital, but Hickling was released after nothing was found.

Hickling's chiropractor recommended he see a neurologist. Before he could locate one, the seriousness of Hickling's injury became apparent when, as Dolores Hickling put it, his body became “spastic.”

“His arms are flailing,” she said. “He can't control anything. He can't stand, he can't do anything, and the flailing — he can't stop it.”

Hickling went to the hospital again, and within three days was paralyzed from the neck down.

He spent more than a month at St. Clair Hospital before being transferred to HealthSouth, where he stayed for nearly two months and began to regain some use of his limbs — including the ability to walk with assistance.

“I thought I looked like the scarecrow from ‘The Wizard of Oz' because my steps were very awkward,” he said.

The next stop was a rehabilitation nursing home in McMurray, and Hickling began walking again without assistance in the fall of 2010.

Hickling lives in a basement apartment in what was once his family's Christian radio station in Crafton. His mother lives upstairs.

Because he lost most of his tricep muscle in one arm and all of it in the other, along with most of the use of his hands, Hickling goes to physical therapy once a week and hand therapy once a week. That's a drop from three times a week for each originally. He visits the doctor four or five times a month, a sharp decrease from the 25 to 30 times he went when he returned home.

He also receives assistance from Tyrone Turner of Christian Home Healthcare, who spends 56 hours a week at Hickling's home.

“He's basically my hands,” Hickling said. “(He) buttons my shirt, does (everything). You don't think of the things you can't do. I can't clean my glasses — I don't even have the ability to push down that hard to clean a lens.”

A former executive chef in San Francisco and hairdresser at several Pittsburgh-area salons, Hickling is now on disability.

But he dreams of returning to work.

“I've never known how to live on the amount of money I get from disability, and I don't want to live on the amount of money I get from disability,” he said. “I want to be a contributing member of society again — and pay taxes.”

Hickling would like to start a website for people in similar situations. The site would outline services and tools available for people with disabilities.

“There's no place for a person who's handicapped online ... to see what can I do, what's available for me, who do I go to to find out about whatever it may be?” he said.

Hickling said doctors never did find out what caused his injury. While he said it might be easy to feel sorry for himself, he said prayer and keeping things in perspective — his injury happened months after a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti — help him cope.

Humor also helps. Hickling recalls a moment soon after his injury, when he was at HealthSouth. After watching a documentary on PBS about the therapeutic effects of music, Hickling — a pianist since the age of 4 — attempted to play the facility's piano.

“I push down on the key, and I didn't have enough muscle strength to push the key down,” he said. “I find everything sort of funny. If you don't have a sense of humor going through something like this, I don't know how you deal with it at all. I started laughing so hard that I fell out of my wheelchair onto the floor.

“They're all real concerned — are you OK, are you OK? I'm like, ‘Yeah, I fell on the floor.'”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-8527 or dgulasy@tribweb.com.

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