Barbara Chapman, Spine Surgery

Barbara Chapman was hungry. Blame it on the grandkids.

Earlier on the morning of July 16, 2007, the 67-year-old Nottawa mother of three grown women had made breakfast for two grandchildren.

After they left she decided to feed herself, too, putting slabs of bacon in the cast iron frying pan and turning on the gas stove. She then took a moment to head to the bathroom just off the kitchen.

Two months earlier she had undergone lower back surgery to repair a herniated disc and arthritic problems. Now, however, she was increasingly bothered by neck and upper back pain she thinks was likely related in part to a severe automobile accident 11 years earlier. On this particular morning, however, she was feeling especially good.

When in the bathroom, however, she suddenly and inexplicably fell to the floor and was unable to get up.

"My whole right side gave out," she said.

Barbara managed to roll onto her tummy and, using toes and elbows, began slowly crawling out of the bathroom. "I kept praying, 'Please, Lord, don't let my children find me here.' "

As she struggled to get to a telephone, she noticed that the bacon was beginning to burn and black smoke was filling the kitchen. After several agonizing minutes, she was able to reach up and grab the long kitchen telephone cord and pull the receiver off the hook. Unfortunately, there was no dial tone. "I thought, 'Oh, Lord, what's going on?'," she said.

Slowly, with black smoke filling her small house, she continued to crawl toward the front door, yelling occasionally in the hope that a neighbor would hear.

"I fell at about 8:45 am," she said, "and I think I crawled for an hour before I got to the door. I would have to stop and rest, praying for the Lord to help me make it to the front deck."

Finally, neighbor Tanya Wiard heard Barbara's calls for help and ran to the house. Tanya, assisted by Jim Chapman, Barbara's brother-in-law who lives next door, called 9-1-1 and helped make Barbara as comfortable as possible.

"When the ambulance came I said I wanted to go the Borgess (Medical Center) ER," Barbara said.

On May 30, 2007, Dr. Mark Krinock, of Neurosurgery of Kalamazoo, had performed the lower back surgery and she wanted to see him again. "Oh, he's such a good doctor," Barbara said.

Taken by taken by ambulance to Borgess, she confesses that, "I don't remember much after that."

At Borgess, an MRI revealed "a severe compromise of the spinal cord in the cervical (upper) spine," Dr. Krinock said. "She was becoming paralyzed from the neck down."

On July 18, Dr. Krinock and the OR team at Borgess did a two-level discectomy, grafted bone and implanted a plate to stabilize Barbara's upper spine.

"After surgery and rehab, she had significant improvement in her ability to walk," Dr. Krinock said. "She's not 100 percent yet, but she's moving in a forward direction."

Krinock said that the accident is one of several factors that contributed to Barbara's back problems. Heredity plays a role in disc degeneration and arthritis, and activities in her lifetime also are involved, he said.

Barbara remained in Borgess for 9 1/2 days and, once discharged, continued to have physical and occupational therapy at her home through Borgess VNA Home Care.

"I did so well in rehab at Borgess that I was walking 200 feet by the time I left," she said. "Once I was home, the wonderful nurses taught me how to walk with good posture and to lift my feet when I walk, and how to sit comfortably. They even taught me a way to dust a little."

"They are so good teaching you how to walk one step at a time."

By mid-August she was making her own breakfast. "I flip my own eggs and do my own toast," she said. "The nurses said that I have good determination, but I couldn't have done it without them."

"Mom is always doing work," said her daughter, Mary, who lives and works nearby and visits every day. "It drives her crazy to sit still."

Karen Timmer, an occupational therapist with Borgess VNA Home Care, has made several visits to the Nottawa home, describing Barbara as "personality-plus."

"Despite all that she has been through, she always has that upbeat, positive attitude," Timmer said. "I think there are two reasons that Barb is so special. One, she is a person of faith. And, two, she has wonderful family support from her kids and grandkids."

Much of her drive and positive attitude springs from her early years.

Born on December 29, 1940, in Sherman Township, Barbara was the daughter of Amish parents who instilled both hard work and a strong religious spirit. Her father was a mason and carpenter.

In 1961 she married Robert Chapman and the couple had three children: Mary and Violet, who live nearby, and Tina, who lives in Kentucky. Jim died of cancer in 2000.

Barbara worked for more than two decades at Nottawa Community Schools as a teacher's aide and translator for children who spoke Amish, a form of German still spoken in the Amish community.

"I wanted to work until I was 70," she said, "but God's plan was different. I loved working at the school."

Deeply religious, she said she now thinks that her fall was part of God's plan. She was told that if the neck problem had not been corrected, it could have become so bad that she may have died. "In a way, July 16 was the best day ever, since I am still alive," she said.

In the 1996 accident, the car she was driving was smashed between two semi-tractor trailers in LaGrange, Indiana. "Doctors told me I had a life-long injury to the back of my head," she said.

Despite the pain and difficulties, Barbara focuses on the positive. "Oh, I made so many good friends at Borgess and with the visiting nurses," she said. "I just love the nurses."

Her daughters, too, are an enormous help.

"I don't dwell on it, but sometimes when I say, 'Oh, I can't do this,' Mary reminds me that I can."