Earle Powdrell had been in a community hospital in Dallas for 3 days, in what appeared to be a vegetative state. Unable to move his eyes to the right or left, Earle could only – at the time – blink.
It was with 5 blinks, that Earle saved his own life.
As an aerospace engineer, Earle designed procedures that are used today to train astronauts and cosmonauts to dock to the International Space Station. The question posed to him was simple, but it allowed him to finally express to the physicians and his family that he was fully conscious and aware of his surroundings.
To his wife, Kathy, Earle would later describe those 3 days in the hospital as a “glass coffin.” He was diagnosed with Locked in Syndrome, a rare neurological condition, aware of his surroundings but unable to communicate physically or verbally due to paralysis.
He was then transported to the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center, where they worked with Earle to address one of his primary concerns: Quality of Life. Earle has participated in research, and 7 years later is showing tremendous progress. “You see, I am an anomaly,” stated Earle who communicated with us via email. “I am a brain stem stroke survivor. Oh yes, I survived. I would not be here today without the courage of my wife, my children, my family, and certainly not without the willingness of 4 doctors to take my case and treat me.”
One of the 4 physicians Earle is referring to is Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, MD, FAAPMR. She is an assistant professor at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and the medical director of the Brain Injury and Stroke Program at TIRR Memorial Hermann. She has been working with Earle since the beginning. Through therapy and the use of complex rehabilitative technology like the Lokomat® and the Tobii, the eye-tracking communication system, Earle has exceeded everyone’s expectations. “Just because Earle suffered this large thrombosis, doesn’t mean that his mind is gone,” stated Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez. “He is a very smart guy, and we’ve tapped into his experience training astronauts and his persistence in finding solutions to continue moving him forward. Through consistent therapy 2 times a week, he has some movement; he can even drive his own wheelchair now!”
Throughout his journey, Earle has not been alone. “We believe strongly that a catastrophic event like this doesn’t just impact the individual, it impacts the entire family,” stated Kathy Powdrell, Earle’s wife of 38 years. According to Earle and Kathy, Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez embraced their family and their journey. “How do I put into words how much I depend on and respect Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez? She is like family, because she has cared for all of us during these past 7 years.”
“Physiatry is more than a clinic visit. It’s creating a relationship with your patients and ensuring their life is as good as it can be,” expressed Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez. “As they say, ‘Some doctors save lives; we save lifestyles.’”
This view of the specialty is apparent in her work. In 2017, Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez and Earle have set a goal to run a race together, with Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez pushing Earle to the finish line. “I will once again feel the wind in my face as she pushes me,” Earle expressed in his email. “This is a quality of life I could have never dreamed of without her knowledge, expertise, dedication, and outstanding research in her field.”
As for Earle, he continues his efforts to shatter the glass coffin with Kathy by his side. In June, they’ll make their sixth trip to Washington D.C. to advocate for improved access and affordability of complex rehabilitation technology for persons with disabilities. “We didn’t choose stroke, but it chose Earle. And we know if this is happening to us, it’s happening to others. So, we’re working to make the world a better place.”
A special note of thanks to Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez for contacting us and helping us connect with Earle and Kathy.