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From therapist to patient — and back again?

  • January 12, 2012

Tornado survivor Penny Anthony battles through rehab with the goal of returning to her career — as a rehab therapist.

Penny Anthony likes her job. She is a certified occupational therapist assistant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Spain Rehabilitation Center. For the past 11 years she’s enjoyed helping people rebuild their lives if accident or disease left them disabled. But in November 2011, everything changed when she became a patient.

Penny was in her home in Pleasant Grove, Ala., on April 27, 2011, because a morning storm had dropped a tree branch on her house. She stayed to contact the insurer and ensure the roof didn’t leak. She has no memory of the massive tornado that roared through Pleasant Grove that afternoon and destroyed her house. Rescuers later told her they found her a block and a half away.

“I had a traumatic brain injury. Something hit me across my face and tore my scalp back, almost amputating my left ear,” she recalled as she ran through the litany of injuries. “I had a spinal-cord injury and breaks in the pinky finger of my left hand. My left leg had a tibia plateau injury (an injury at the end of the bone), and I had a lung injury and other lacerations on my body.”

After five weeks in intensive care at UAB Hospital and months more recovering at her brother’s house, she returned to Spain for outpatient rehabilitation in November. Her friends and co-workers now were her therapists.

“I’m supposed to be helping the injured patient; I’m not supposed to be the injured patient,” she said about coming to terms with her new role. “It’s opened my eyes to the rehab patient’s point of view.”

Her goal is to return to her old job, but more rehab and additional surgeries await her. Physical therapist Brian King says she will have a unique perspective when she does return.

“She’s seen rehab from the other side,” said King. “It's a view that most of us never see. I think when she comes back, she’s really going to understand the patients’ needs.”

Penny has many reasons to be thankful. Friends and family have eased her journey, and her dog P-nut — also in the house when the twister struck — was found safe the next day. P-nut is staying with friends until Penny is able to care for her in what she hopes is a new home.

“My plan is to rebuild on my land in Pleasant Grove,” she said. “A group of architects and builders have joined to offer their services free in the tornado-damaged communities.”

Rebuilding won’t be easy. Insurance won’t cover everything, and she’s received no assistance from the federal government. She’s hoping that with some help here, a gallon of paint there, she’ll be able to see construction begin this month.

“It’s been a hard journey, but it’s been an awesome one,” she said. “I believe and have faith that I will continue to be blessed so that one day I can once again switch roles and be a therapist again. I believe I can better understand and better help people on the same journey that I have been on.”