New Mom Adjusts to Life with a Disability

When you meet Rachel Barkley today, you will see a 32-year-old woman who is vibrant and independent. She is a wife and mother of a fast-moving toddler who owns her own business as a political consultant in Washington, DC. Rachel both walks with a cane or crutches and utilizes a wheelchair, which hints at the spinal cord injury incurred two years prior.  

A Life off Balance

When she came to Magee in July 2019, Rachel was at the intersection of the best and worst moments of her life. She had just turned 30 and given birth to her son, Hudson, at the end of May. Three weeks later, her right leg suddenly became paralyzed.

“I had been having bad back and neck pain for three years. As my pregnancy progressed, the pain continued to worsen, then I started losing my balance,” Rachel recalled. “People told me that happens in pregnancy, but it got to the point where I was afraid to walk.”

When paralysis set in, it was clear the back pain and balance issues she had been experiencing were not related to the pregnancy. Doctors discovered a rare benign tumor inside her spinal cord from the C4 to the T4 level. The tumor was removed successfully, but had damaged her spinal cord. It left her unable to walk and with limited movement below her shoulders after surgery.

Learning to Care for Herself and Her Baby

Rachel walks with assistance from therapists during her inpatient stay.

As Rachel recovered in the days following the spinal surgery, her family researched rehabilitation hospitals on the East coast. They chose Magee because of its renown spinal cord injury program. As a new mom, Rachel also appreciated the private patient suite so she could have her newborn with her.

“The nurses and therapists at Magee got me through a really dark time, not knowing what life would be like adjusting to living with a disability,” she said.

For the next two and a half months, Rachel underwent hours of daily physical and occupational therapies. Her care team was optimistic she would be able to walk again, but Rachel also faced another challenge: learning how to care for her baby in her new body.

“My therapists pushed me more and more every day,” Rachel recalls. “When I got to Magee I was bedridden. By the time I was discharged, I was able to stand up with a walker for 10 minutes and take a few steps with some help from the therapists supporting my legs.”

Continued Progress

The progress gave Rachel confidence that she would be able to one day walk on her own. Adjusting to life at home presented a new set of challenges. She no longer had the daily support of therapists and nursing staff. She was still learning to take care of Hudson with limited movement in her right arm and in the confines of a wheelchair. Her townhome was two levels, which made it difficult to use a stair lift to move from the main floor to the new bedrooms they created in the basement with her newborn. But these hurdles provided a new level of motivation in her recovery.

“It’s been a huge goal to be 100 percent independent, and I would say I’m just about there,” Rachel shared. “I wanted to be in the yard with Hudson. I want to do more things as a family.”

For the last two years, Rachel has continued with outpatient rehabilitation close to her home in Washington, DC. Two days a week she works out at an adaptive gym designed for individuals with disabilities. They’ve moved into a single-level home. A specially designed adaptive crib has allowed Rachel to care for Hudson with more ease. They go for daily walks in their neighborhood down to a creek and a playground in her power wheelchair.

“It’s such a miracle that I am where I am right now,” said Rachel. “I’m much further than I ever would have thought.”

Watch Rachel’s story when she was at Magee in 2019

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