By Kate Vander Wiede

Physical therapy and aquatic therapy give Laroche independence

It wasn’t quite what Ed Laroche expected: becoming paralyzed at age 59. But three and a half years ago, after waking up from a medically-induced coma, that’s what he was. Admitted to the hospital with an rare and often-fatal disease – hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) – that had caused multiple organ failure, delirium and a 107-degree fever, Laroche’s doctors said that he was lucky to be alive at all.

Pumped full of steroids and drugs normally used to treat cancer, Laroche was surrounded by his wife and three sons as he contemplated his new future in what amounted to a new body.

For a year, he started slowly working toward getting movement back, and his body slowly responded. “My body came back in small bits and pieces,” Laroche recalled during a recent phone conversation. He progressed to a wheelchair and moved into a nursing home where he could get in-patient rehabilitation. When he was finally able to come home after a year, he needed special crutches to get up and move around.

And while he was happy to no longer be completely paralyzed, Laroche really wanted to get back to work. Prior to his hospitalization, Laroche had worked, at times, four jobs. He was an advanced practice nurse and clinical director for a company that has nursing homes in several states. He also taught pediatrics to senior-level nursing students. He was, as he says, busy. But now, with his inability to move around easily and a bias from potential employees when they saw him with his crutches, getting a new job was proving difficult.

When he first came to Performance Physical Therapy in 2016, Laroche’s goal was to be able to walk 20 feet without his crutches, so that he could go to job interviews without them. Erin Botelho, Clinic Director and a physical therapist at PPT’s Pawtucket location, got straight to work with him, putting him on the gravity-reducing Alter-G treadmill and in the pool.

The pool and the anti-gravity treadmill reduces gravity’s impact on joints and muscles to allow safe and painless training and rehabilitation.  “The Alter-G allowed me to stand and actually walk,” said Laroche of the specialized treadmill. “And in the pool, it was just so great: I could walk and I could move again. I was normal.”

The AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill pictured) and aquatic therapy allow patients to train and do rehab in a reduced-gravity environment that has lower impact on their joints and muscles.

Off and on over the course of the last year and a half, Laroche has worked with Botelho and the rest of the team at the Pawtucket at strengthening his lower body and working on balance activities, aimed at improving Laroche’s ability to walk with a normal gait and strengthening muscles to help build up his endurance.

And even though he still sometimes uses his crutches for stability, Laroche is now able to walk 160 feet without them. He’s able to walk up the stairs. He’s able to move around on his own terms. “Basically, what Performance did for me is it took me from a state of just being alive,” he said, “to, even though I still have a ways to go, being purely independent.”

Botelho said Laroche has been a joy to work with, noting that his great sense of humor always makes his visits fun. And when Laroche is so motivated that he pushes himself too hard sometimes, Botelho is always there to be able to tell him to slow it down. “He’s more than open to my recommendations and ‘scolding’ if he’s doing something that is not safe or appropriate for his rehab,” Botelho said.

Laroche said that one of the best parts about Performance – other than all the progress he’s made while there – is this kind of open communication and relationship with the staff. He said all the physical therapists, physical therapy assistants, exercise specialists and others who work with him take their time to answer his questions and show him exercises, know him and his care plan  and, while providing the best care and the right information, they also treat him like “a colleague, not a patient.”

“No one treats me like I’m just their 6-o-clock appointment,” he said, adding that it felt a little like Cheers every time he walks in for an appointment and people greets him. “They are genuinely concerned about me and genuinely enthused when I make progress.”

Throughout it all, Laroche said that despite sometimes having trouble getting motivated for physical therapy appointments and exercises that push him to work hard, he always leaves Performance with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Three and a half years out from his HLH hospitalization, Laroche knows the road ahead is still long, but said that he, his wife, and his entire family, know that at Performance, he’ll continue to improve.

“I feel at home at Performance,” Laroche said. “It’s just such a good place to learn how to be a human again.”