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Postal carrier returns to work after 392 days

Posted By: Nikki Bircher meta_seperate Date Posted: March 7th, 2011 meta_seperate Category: Medicine

REHAB INSTITUTE- When Ronnita Rice, 16, got home from Normandy High School Sept. 3, 2009, homework and an upcoming track meet were her most pressing concerns.

That changed suddenly, when Ronnita discovered her mom, 49-year-old Ju Juan Rice, stumbling around incoherently. Ronnita soon found herself and her mother at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, dealing with Ju Juan’s debilitating stroke.

Rice was eventually discharged to The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis for physical, occupational and speech therapy. Day by day her condition improved. Her goal was always to get back to work as a postal carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. “The nurses were so tired of me coming up and asking to go back to work that they parked my chair beside the nursing station and would allow me to direct calls,” Rice says.

Unfortunately, meeting that challenge would take some time, as a second stroke pulled Rice back to another stay at BJH.

Her second stroke was more devastating, leaving Rice unable to return to The Rehabilitation Institute based on her condition. Instead, she transferred to a nursing home, where she was wheelchair-bound and unable to communicate. “I was going with the flow of a fog,” she says. Daily visits from Ronnita, her son Brandon and her 84-year-old mother kept Rice focused on recovery and lightened her burden during this dark period.

Exactly what she needed to reach her goal

The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis’ routine practice of “checking” on previous patients paid off in Rice’s case. She was a prime candidate for an outpatient Day Treatment program at TRISL, and qualified for transportation to and from her nursing home. The program provided intense physical, occupational and speech therapy six hours a day.

One hundred days after her stroke, she walked into church without her wheelchair. Soon after, she was speaking and once again able to identify her goal of getting back to work. “Nothing was easy, but this is what I had to do to get back to my life,” Rice says.

With Rice’s progress in mind, her team of therapists — Theresa Conran, Maura Mcalister, JoAnn Rasch, Emily Mooshegian, Linda Vassolo, Kari Cox, Gina Kopp and Mary Seaton — began recreating the functions essential to her success.

Initially, Rice trained by walking long stints on a treadmill, eventually moving on to an inclined unit and a simulated 35-pound mailbag, courtesy of her manager. Next came walking around the TRISL building, then around the BJH perimeter.

Getting prepared for the ‘real job’ of mail delivery

There’s more to delivering the mail, however, than just “delivering the mail.” Therapist Mary Seaton began working with Rice on sorting TRISL mail for staff. Slowly Rice branched out to the Washington University School of Medicine mailroom. Before long, she was sorting and delivering mail all over the medical center campus.

Rice’s therapists realized that even the simulated mail route, with therapists as guides, wouldn’t be enough to fully prepare Rice for her real mail delivery tasks. So TRISL staff contacted the U.S. Postal Service and, with the permission of Rice’s boss, she began sorting mail in her 4-foot-by-4-foot cubby.

Once she had perfected that skill, her therapists moved her on to the cognitive component of recognition and remembering the routes she had held for 25 years. As Rice walked her route, a TRISL van scooted stealthily behind, preparing to call it a day if she were unable to continue. That day the therapists discovered why Rice’s primary goal was to get back to work. Rice’s co-workers and mail route recipients doted on her like a long lost family member.

Rice continued to go the extra mile, as did her therapy team at TRISL, and 392 days after her stroke, she went back to work. During her recovery, Rice lost her home, saw her daughter Ronnita graduate from high school, and witnessed friends and family rally around her success and support her through a Christmas benefit.

“Faith kept us all going,” she says. “God gave me another chance, and I am not going to worry about anything. My life is back, and I have all of my therapists to thank.”

To see a video of Ju Juan Rice, click below:

Nikki.Bircher@healthsouth.com