In 1988, Cindy Howden was thrown from a horse and dragged along a guardrail. The young Nebraska woman suffered traumatic brain injury and fractures of the skull, face and neck in the terrible accident, leaving all four limbs paralyzed.
Cindy was airlifted to Mayo Clinic, where she was treated by Mayo Clinic's emergency services. "They almost gave me up for dead," Cindy says . "Were it not for Mayo Clinic and the grace of God, I wouldn't be here today."
After extensive surgery to stabilize her spine and several months of recovery, Cindy transferred to the Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Unit. Her vision was impaired, she was nearly totally paralyzed in all four limbs, and was unable to chew, speak or swallow. Doctors were fearful that because of her brain injury, she may have lost her cognitive abilities.
"Fortunately," said Mark Christopherson, M.D., one of the doctors who received the original call, "Cindy went on to prove that her cognitive brain injury was fairly mild, and that she truly has exceptional intellect in judgment."
Cindy says that from the moment she woke up, not knowing the extent of her injuries, she was certain of one thing: she knew she could recover. She's quick to admit, "I'm not very good at not being very good." She says that knowing that she would recover encouraged her to work hard — perhaps too hard at times. Cindy describes how her nurses would often find her wide-awake at 3 a.m., persistently practicing hand exercises.
Through months of rehabilitation, Cindy slowly but steadily improved. "It was a hard time," she says, "but when I went into rehabilitation. After those first few months, it was also fun — focused and directed toward recovery — but fun."
She describes how her speech therapist taped a pencil to her nose to identify movement in her face. At her request, he taped a pencil to his own nose, too. "So there we sat," she laughs, "staring at a mirror, pencils dangling from our noses. They were very good at getting me where I wanted to go. They're just wonderful, kind, competent people."
With the support of family, friends, and Mayo Clinic staff, Cindy eventually progressed far beyond the original expectations of the medical community.
Today, though Cindy's coordination and range of motion are not what they were before the accident, she has use of all four limbs, and walks with the assistance of a cane. She continues to have some trouble speaking and swallowing. "Cindy can live independently with the assistance of equipment, techniques, and hard work that would be overwhelming to most people," Dr. Christopherson explains. "Of course, Cindy is no average human being." Cindy is involved in her church, and swims and works out at a health club. She can walk short distances and uses a wheelchair for longer distances. "If I walked, it would take me forever to get there," she says. And if there's one thing that Cindy isn't going to do, it's move slowly.
After leaving Mayo, Cindy went back to graduate school and today she is a vocational counselor for the state of Nebraska, working with people with physical and emotional disabilities. She also spends time on her acreage, where she lives with three dogs, three cats, and three horses. (She has named two of her dogs and one of her horses after her therapist and surgeons at Mayo Clinic.)
"About the only thing I don't do anymore is bale and stack hay," she says. Cindy also speaks publicly to a variety of audiences: health care professionals, businesses, students and civic groups. She has developed a Web site, appropriately named attitudeinaction.com.
Though it has been more than 15 years since her accident, Cindy still maintains close ties with the rehabilitation staff at Mayo Clinic.
"When I go back to the Mayo Clinic, I feel like I'm going home," says Cindy. "There's nothing more comforting than a hug from Dr. Christopherson. He has a heart as big as a mountain. I wouldn't be here without Mayo Clinic or without my family. Everyone's been there 110 percent for me. They know where I've been and know how far I've come. They saw me in a coma, and nine months later, watched me walk out of Mayo Clinic."