Shepherd Center Ramps Up its Fall Prevention Efforts Statewide
Former patient injured in a fall lends his perspective on injury prevention.
If your household is like most, there is probably a ladder in your garage. That ladder is used to paint the house, clean gutters and second story windows, and access rooftops. Most people don’t stop to consider the risk involved with climbing one. Kenny Pope of Flowery Branch, Ga., says he certainly didn’t.
In May of 2008, he and his wife, Teri, returned home from a leisurely afternoon visiting family when he noticed their satellite dish was broken. Kenny got his extension ladder and climbed to the roof. A friend helped keep the foot of the ladder in place. But Kenny didn’t realize the extension lock had not been properly engaged. While the ladder held his weight for a time, it soon collapsed upon itself.
“I fell 20 feet and landed on my back,” Kenny says. “I knew [while lying on the ground] that my legs were unplugged.”
Just 37 years old at the time, he sustained a complete spinal cord injury at the T-8 level and underwent three surgeries. “Thankfully, I received immediate care, and Shepherd Center was consulted from the start,” Kenny says. Now, part of his life’s mission is sharing his story, and he says many people report thinking twice before trying to play a do-it-yourself handyman because of what happened.
“I was raised by a dad who paid to have housework done and I have always worked a desk job,” Kenny explains. “But two years before the fall, I started doing things around the house – replacing porch lights and getting up on that very same ladder to paint the window frames. Looking back, I didn’t have enough experience.”
He may be onto something.
Falls are actually a very common cause of spinal cord injury – second only to motor vehicle accidents. In fact, accidental falls account for nearly one in three spinal cord injuries, and they may be on the rise, according to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. They are also the leading cause of traumatic brain injury.
“Most people don’t think a fall can result in spinal cord or brain injury, but we’ve seen devastating outcomes, whether it’s a fall from a bike, off a toilet, on the ice or tripping on a rug,” says Anna Elmers, M.D., a staff physiatrist who treats brain and spinal cord injuries at Shepherd Center.
People can fall from any height or surface and at any age. But often, as people get older, the number of falls and severity of injury increase. But Emma Harrington, MSPS, Ed.M., director of injury prevention and education services at Shepherd Center, stresses that falls are not an inevitable part of aging, and most are preventable.
“We have to retrain our culture because older adults often develop a fear of falling, and, as a result, they limit their activities and social outings,” Harrington says. “This can lead to depression and physical weakness, making the risk of falling even greater. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
Shepherd Center is now spearheading efforts in Georgia to raise awareness of the risks of falls and how to prevent them. The initiative kicked off on the first day of fall 2014 – designated by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) as Fall Prevention Awareness Day – with a workshop titled “Strong Today, Falls Free Tomorrow.” The free event, offered in partnership with the Georgia Department of Public Health – Injury Prevention and the Atlanta Regional Commission, drew more than 100 people and included demonstrations, health checks, screenings, practical tips for preventing falls, Tai Chi and music therapy.
In addition, Shepherd Center has adopted “A Matter of Balance,” an eight-session, evidence-based program created by the National Council on Aging that provides strategies to reduce the fear of falling and increase activity levels among older adults. During the class, participants learn to:
- View falls as controllable
- Set goals for being more active
- Make changes at home to reduce fall risk
- Exercise to increase strength and balance
Harrington says the program will be offered at local senior centers, and she and experts at Shepherd Center will help train others to extend the reach to every county in Georgia.
TIPS FOR PREVENTION
“Do what you can to minimize your chances of falling and make your home safe for everyone,” Dr. Elmers says.
- Use extreme caution when climbing on anything – even a small step stool in the kitchen or when you hang pictures.
- Make modifications in your home. Remove any loose rugs or cords, keep pathways clear, ditch clutter, use motion-activated night-lights and keep flashlights handy to help guide you in the dark. Non-slip mats and grab bars, if needed, can help make bathrooms safer.
- Wear suitable shoes. Make sure they fit well and ideally have non-skid soles.
- Always wear a helmet. If you ride bikes, motorcycles, scooters or horses, protect your head.
- Hire a professional. For outside jobs like cleaning the gutters or painting the house, it’s probably best to leave it to the experts. Spending the money to have the gutters cleaned is a lot less costly than a catastrophic injury, Harrington notes.
- Stay healthy and active. Keep up with annual eye exams and physicals, which can alert you and your doctor to problems that might make you more prone to falls. Help maintain muscle tone and core body strength by staying active. Talk with your doctor if you’ve had a fall or think you are at risk of falling; he or she can provide resources. Always be extra careful when drinking alcohol and don’t check your smartphone while walking.
- Review your medications. Talk with your health care team about the list of medications – prescription and over-the-counter – that you take. Sometimes certain medications or combinations of medications can leave you feeling off balance.
- Accept assistance when you need it. If you feel unsteady or unsure, ask for help.
Kenny also urges people to pay attention to the environment. “Slow down and think through what you are doing and the possible risks. All it takes is one slip,” he says.
Kenny adds that he feels fortunate because of the immediate medical care he received. He and his wife recently returned to a favorite vacation spot and, with the help of a motorized beach wheelchair, the couple was able to once again stroll down the beach hand in hand. Kenny has also been able to continue his love of cooking thanks to a modified kitchen. Coincidently, a close co-worker of Kenny’s, Bill Furbish, has quadriplegia and underwent rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, so he was well prepared in a sense.
“I knew my life wasn’t over, but that it would be different,” Kenny says. “I feel blessed that Bill paved a path for me to Shepherd.”
For more information on Shepherd Center’s injury prevention program, visit shepherd.org/injuryprevention.
- One in three Americans aged 65 or older fall each year.
- Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of non-fatal trauma-related hospital admissions in older adults.
- Every 14 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 29 minutes, an older adult dies following a fall.
- The total cost of fall injuries is expected to soar to $59.6 billion by 2020.
Source: National Council on Aging
Certain things, such as someone’s health, medications, or home or work environment, can make falls more likely.
- Medical risk factors – For example, certain conditions like vision loss, previous stroke, or arthritis or medication side effects.
- Personal risk factors – Lack of exercise to maintain coordination and bone and muscle strength, excessive alcohol intake, a poor diet or dehydration.
- Factors at home – Trip, slip and fall hazards, insufficient light to see in the dark, etc.
In the media
Written by Amanda Crowe, MA, MPH
Photos by Kim Craft
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neurological conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.