KEARNEY — Just one finger, a hand, an arm. That’s all Jeff Wirth is asking for.
In the 13½ months since a minor crash, Wirth hasn’t been able to voluntarily move any of his limbs from his chest down or to care for himself. He’s a quadriplegic.
“One arm would be huge. Being able to drive a wheelchair, sign a check, change a channel, grab a phone — one hand would be nice. Anything. … So far, nothing,” he told the Hub on a recent visit.
Wirth, 55, is temporarily living at QLI Tri-Dimensional Rehab in Omaha where he has therapy and rehabilitation. A Kearney lawyer for 28 years, he has served 27 years as a deputy Buffalo County public defender and had been the public defender the last 10 years after being elected in 2006 to replace a retiring Gary Hogg.
Despite his disabilities, Wirth stays in touch with his office, doing what he can via email.
On Feb. 16, 2016, Wirth was driving to a meeting at the state Juvenile Probation Office at 321 Central Ave. when he bumped into a light pole in the parking lot at a low speed. The crash was so minor it didn’t even dent his pickup, but the jolt was enough, Wirth said, to cause a spinal stenosis he didn’t know he had to bruise his spinal cord and paralyze him.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the open spaces within the spine, which can put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.
“I remember kind of lurching forward in my seat and a sharp pain in my neck, and then I couldn’t move my arms and legs,” Wirth recalled.
A woman across the street saw the crash and came to his aid. He could barely talk.
“Honestly, when it happened, I thought it was a ‘stinger.’ I thought, ‘Oh, this is just something temporary. I felt the pain in my neck, but I thought it was something that would go away,” Wirth said.
Wirth was taken to CHI Health Good Samaritan in Kearney were doctors operated to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord. He moved his big toes, but that was it.
Nine days later, he was flown to Craig Hospital in Denver for treatment and rehabilitation. There, he wiggled his toes, but it was only once, and he hasn’t been able to do it since.
Years ago, Wirth had surgery on his spinal cord in his lower back. Within a month, he noticed slight numbness in his hands, which, over the years slowly got worse. Wirth thought the pain was from the
surgery. Instead, it was stenosis on the spine, or calcium deposits, on his upper back that was the culprit of his numbness.
“The night before my accident, I said to the guys I bowled with, ‘I can hardly hold onto this ball.’ My fingers were so numb,” he said. “But it was the stenosis that was putting pressure on my spinal cord.”
Doctors don’t know how long Wirth had the stenosis.
At Craig, Wirth was fitted for a wheelchair that he operates using a suck and blow stick and learned how to use technology through his chair, including a TV and email. June 1, he transferred to QLI, a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation facility in Omaha where he lives in an apartment on the campus and does therapy five days a week.
Wirth can control his shoulders and deltoids and can lift his right hand about one-half inch. He has some touch sensation in his arms and hands, but he can’t voluntarily move his fingers or lower limbs.
Though his fingers and hands twitch and spasm, there isn’t anything he can control. He also has a paralyzed diaphragm, which causes him to get winded when he talks.
He struggles watching the success of other patients with similar injuries.
“To sit and see people who have been here a month less than me walking, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. When is it my turn to get up and walk?’” he said. “There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t sit there and try to concentrate on moving my hand or moving my thumb, or tapping my foot or just doing something.”
In mid-April, Wirth will move to QLI’s assisted living facility on campus. His wife, Deb visits often, but she works full-time as a rural mail carrier in Kearney where the couple has their medical insurance. Deb is overseeing the construction of their new 6,000-square-foot house in north Kearney, which is scheduled to be completed in August.
Deb continues to look for an ADA apartment suitable for Wirth’s needs so he can move back sooner. At 6-foot 1-inches tall and 285 pounds, Wirth has a bigger wheelchair that doesn’t fit through standard ADA-compliant doorways or into showers.
The Wirths initially thought about modifying their current house to make it suitable for him, but it wasn’t practical. The new house will include a voice-activated thermostat, lights, doors and blinds that Wirth has practiced using in his simulated apartment at QLI. The house will also have 5-foot-wide hallways, 42-inch doors, an elevator and an office so he can work from home.
Workman’s compensation insurance is covering medical expenses and supplies.
Once he’s back in Kearney and settled with therapists and care givers, Wirth plans to transition back to his law office in downtown Kearney and back to eventually the courtroom. In the meantime he continues his therapy and works from his apartment as much as he can.
In his absence, Kearney lawyer Tom Stewart, a deputy public defender, has served as Wirth’s interim and runs the day-to-day operations. Wirth still reviews claims via email.
“It gives me something to do,” he said.
As for Wirth’s prognosis, it’s uncertain, although he and Deb remain hopeful he will regain some mobility.
“They tell you everybody is different,” he said. “The saying at Craig was ‘Plan for today, pray for tomorrow.’”
Despite his daily struggles, Wirth maintains his quick wit, helping him push through the tough days.
“It’s really tough to stay positive. You really have to work at it. It’s pretty easy to get really, really depressed about the whole situation,” he said. “They put you to bed, and that’s how you lay. You can’t roll over, you can’t turn. Someone has to brush your teeth, comb your hair, shower you. All that stuff. It’s terrible.”
Yet Wirth considers himself blessed compared with others and is champing at the bit to get back home to his “new normal.”
“It is what it is. Can’t change it,” he said. “You’ve got to get on with your life and make the best of it.”
By KIM SCHMIDT
Kearney Hub Staff Writer