Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Brooke Hopkins' exhaustion shows on his face after his workout on an FES or Functional Electrical Stimulation bike at South Davis Community Hospital. The FES machine is designed to increase blood circulation, his range of motion and increase muscle mass in his legs. Brooke Hopkins arrives at his home for an overnight stay with his wife Peggy Battin for the first time in 21-months in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, August 18, 2010. Hopkins broke his neck in a November 14, 2008 bicycle accident in City Creek Canyon and is almost completely paralyzed. Hopkins now lives at the South Davis Community Hospital where he receives constant care.
Brooke Hopkins awoke Wednesday morning in his own bed, with his wife nestled next to him.
And he wasn’t dreaming.
“It was beautiful, beautiful,” Hopkins exclaimed over breakfast on the deck of his Avenues house. “Even with the loud humidifier, it was great. So comfy.”
Leaning back in his high-end, automated wheelchair, the 68-year-old retired University of Utah English professor said “wow” over and over as he noted the trees, the bugs, the flowers, the friends — all of them once such a familiar part of his everyday existence.
On this day, his first extended trip home since being paralyzed in a bike accident in November 2008, simple pleasures felt so extraordinary.
Until this week, Hopkins’ world has been made up of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, sterile instruments and the buzzing and beeping of various machines that kept him alive. For 21 months, he has battled to breathe and to move, even a finger or toe. He has endured painful treatments, drug reactions, lung ailments, muscle spasms. He has faced a loss of dignity and control.
Though Hopkins and his wife, Peggy Battin, yearned for him to return home, both had separate concerns about it. Would there be enough skilled workers on hand in an emergency? Would he be able to steer through pathways in his historic Salt Lake City home? Would he suffer depression by comparing the old life with the new?
What would Hopkins’ return mean for Battin, a nationally recognized medical ethicist? Though she missed him deeply, she had created space and time for herself, knowing he was well-cared for at the South Davis Community Hospital in Bountiful. Now an army of helpers was about to invade. Would she find a room of her own?
There was no way of knowing.
Initially, a permanent homecoming was set for Tuesday. But then came inexplicable yet searing nerve pains and a return to the ventilator he had so happily outgrown in the past few months with the use of a diaphragmatic pacer.
The couple settled, instead, on a 24-hour test run.
The experiment begins • Around 11 a.m. on Tuesday, a big blue van pulled into the driveway of the home that Hopkins and Battin had shared for decades.
Julia Strompolos, a petite student nurse directing his home care, pushed the lanky professor in his head-activated wheelchair down the van’s portable ramp and onto the walkway, now smoothed and opened for easy access. He entered the house, through a new front door, wheeling into the now-open living room.
In his absence, the house was transformed.
Oriental rugs exchanged for thin carpet. Kitchen entry opened up. Papers and clutter stowed away. Sticky notes removed from fridge. Doors widened, thresholds ramped. Deck enlarged and lengthened. Some furniture eliminated, other pieces rearranged.
The biggest project may have been adding a lift in the bedroom ceiling to hoist Hopkins’ 6-foot-5 frame from his wheelchair to the bed. The ceiling and floor had to be reinforced to carry the weight.
As he spun through the place, Hopkins noted all the changes and nodded, but added, “This looks great, but it will have to be stripped. There’s still too much furniture.”
His face revealed anxiousness and uncertainty. Will it work? Can he navigate it all, both physically and emotionally?
Strompolos brought in all the portable equipment for his care, then cleared the mucus from his lungs and throat.
Shaun Wheeler, a dry-waller who is moving into medicine, massaged Hopkins’ thigh, which had developed a spasm while sitting in the van.
Before long, a delivery man stopped by with a humidifier the doctor had ordered to help Hopkins breathe easier. Everyone groaned after it was plugged in and made a loud hum.
In the early afternoon, Battin’s son arrived from Seattle and sprung into action. Mike Battin was a paramedic for years and is intimately familiar with Hopkins’ needs and equipment. He helped Strompolos and Wheeler get Hopkins ready for a nap in his old bed.
They put him in a sling, which was raised by the lift, and lowered him onto the bed. They then pushed the bed against the window and propped him up with a wedged pillow.
In the hospital, he has a button to summon 20 people, Mike Battin said. “Here it is just a bunch of sundry paraprofessionals.”
This visit is crucial, the stepson said. It would shake out any bugs in the home-care system. It’s where fantasy would meet fact.
Back on the bed, Hopkins watched helplessly as the crew worked to peel the pants off his immobile limbs and put his feet in fabric boots to keep his ankles apart.
“I’m glad you’re having fun,” he said with a hint of irony, clearly starting to enjoy himself.
A good night’s sleep • By morning, Hopkins’ smile has become constant.
“It was great to have Peggy next to me,” he said, while eating the egg frittata and cantaloupe she had set on an outdoor table. “The night was so peaceful.”
Though Strompolos and Mike Battin were on hand for emergencies, they were awakened only for routine care.
Hopkins’ stepson called the test an unqualified success.
“We identified that he could do it. There were no show stoppers,” Mike Battin said. “There was nothing we forgot or couldn’t do.”
Now it’s up Hopkins to decide when he can come home to stay. He has agreed tentatively to teach a course this fall for U.’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which provides nondegree classes for the over-50 crowd.
Hopkins’ subject? Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
“It’s a book,” he said, “about what you can learn when you are doing nothing.”
Though he will teach it from his living room and may have to lean back in his chair to get adequate air in his lungs, Hopkins was pleased at the prospect.
“It was Peggy’s idea,” he said. “She’s good at motivating me. It would be so easy to become passive.”
After Strompolos cleared fluid from his lungs one more time, Hopkins wheeled himself back into the van.
He will be back soon, he hopes. And this time for good.