In July 2015, 17-year-old Angel Maldonado was traveling back home to Houston from California with his parents and sister in their family vehicle when they were involved in an automobile accident in San Antonio.
Angel and his sister were transported to a children’s hospital in nearby Austin, Texas. There, Angel was informed that he had a C4 spinal cord injury. As a result, he could not move his arms, legs, hands or trunk, a condition known as quadriplegia. His sister also had a spinal cord injury while their parents survived the accident with less severe injuries than their children.
Angel spent several months in the children’s hospital in Austin recovering from the accident. During that time, his parents researched rehabilitation hospitals and learned about Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann. His mom was determined to get her kids to TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston for rehabilitation, and Angel was able to transfer there in January 2016.
“I had occupational and physical therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann,” Angel said. “I also saw a neuropsychologist.” TIRR Memorial Hermann’s neuropsychologists utilize evidence-based practices to assist individuals and their families in adapting to the effects of illness or injury.
While at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Angel began to regain use of his arms and learned to use a power wheelchair. “That gave me a sense of freedom,” he said.
“Angel’s biggest goals for that first phase of rehab were driving his power wheelchair and accessing his iPad so that he could listen to music,” said his physical therapist Natasha Sangira, PT, DPT, NCS. “His occupational therapist worked on helping him utilize a stylus on his iPad and wheelchair positioning, and together we worked on sitting, balance and transfers in/out of his wheelchair. We also worked on navigating spaces as he learned to drive his chair. His mom, Lupe, is a pillar of strength and is such an encouraging and optimistic mom. She advocated so much for her kids (Angel’s sister also went to TIRR Memorial Hermann for rehabilitation after her spinal cord injury) and played a large part in his recovery.”
“With the help of comprehensive therapies and education at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Angel learned many skills including feeding himself, operating his power chair independently, gaining the ability to direct his care providers, and gaining knowledge to recognize early signs and symptoms of SCI-related complications,” said his physician, Radha Korupolu, MD, MS (associate professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and attending physician, Spinal Cord Program at TIRR Memorial Hermann). “These skills allowed easy transition to home and kept him safe in his home environment while he was learning advanced skills to further improve his independence and promote neuro-recovery in TIRR Memorial Hermann’s patient setting.”
Following Angel’s discharge from his initial phase of rehabilitation, he had struggled emotionally. Due to his injury, he was homeschooled for his senior year of high school.
“I was going into my senior year of high school before the accident and had so many plans,” said Angel. “I intended to join the Marines and even knew the specific job I wanted once I enlisted. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. After my injury, I was depressed. I tried to stay in the house as much as possible, and when I went out, I felt like everyone was looking at me. It hit me that I wasn’t the same as I used to be. I felt alienated.”
Jacob M. Williams, PhD, is director of the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Neuropsychology at TIRR Memorial Hermann and treated Angel while he was a patient. Dr. Williams said, “Neuropsychologists and rehabilitation psychologists at TIRR Memorial Hermann provide personalized care to address the adjustment, psychological and cognitive concerns that often come up in individuals’ rehabilitation journey after major life events. We strive to increase functioning, promote participation in the rehabilitation process and advocate for quality of life for children, adults and caregivers for those with disabilities and chronic medical conditions.”
In January 2017, Angel entered TIRR Memorial Hermann for a second phase of rehabilitation. TIRR Memorial Hermann’s rehabilitation team often recommends phased admissions: This means that a patient may be in initial rehabilitation for a few weeks, then go home before readmission for additional inpatient rehabilitation therapy. During the time between admissions, the patient will continue to work on building strength and endurance. The period between phases also allows the patient’s mobility precautions to be lifted, so that they can participate in more advanced activities when they return for the second phase.
“When I returned to TIRR Memorial Hermann for my second phase, I was able to help other patients who were at the beginning of their rehabilitation, and that felt good,” said Angel. “I also reconnected with my faith. This time at TIRR Memorial Hermann I was a social butterfly! While I continued my rehabilitation I figured out that I wanted to also work in the medical field as a psychologist or neuropsychologist like the ones I saw at TIRR Memorial Hermann.”
“Angel told me that he enjoys talking to people, hearing their perspectives and giving them time to open up,” said Sangira, his physical therapist. “He talked to me about being a neuropsychologist and told me that he knew it might be a longer timeline for him to finish college given his injury, but that he would do it, despite all odds.”
After being discharged from inpatient care at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Angel began outpatient therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation – Kirby Glen Center, where he worked toward returning to school.
“In outpatient therapy, I worked on my hand function with my occupational therapist,” said Angel. “That helped me when I went to school because I knew I would be capable of taking my own notes.”
In July 2017, Angel began taking classes at Lone Star College. Later, he transferred to Sam Houston State University. He is poised to graduate in 2024 with a degree in psychology and minor in sociology.
“Next, I plan to attend medical school and pursue a degree in psychiatry,” said Angel. “I want to help people who are in rehabilitation due to a disability.”
“It is so stirring for me to learn of the direct impact that my coworkers and I have on people’s lives and to know that we are helping to nurture the next generation of amazing psychologists,” said Dr. Williams.
When he isn’t studying, Angel enjoys traveling with his family. They recently went to Europe and visited London, Switzerland and Paris. While there, Angel documented sites that are accessible to individuals with disabilities so that he can share that information with future travelers.
“His journey from TIRR Memorial Hermann inpatient after acute injury, to getting back to college, and now going for a vacation to Europe—is remarkable,” said Dr. Korupolu. “He is a speaker and has shared his real-life experience with Sam Houston students. He also serves on a community advisory board for an NIH-funded study. Nothing could stop him from doing what he wanted to do in his life.”
For the 34th consecutive year, TIRR Memorial Hermann is recognized as the best rehabilitation hospital in Texas and No. 4 in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report's "Best Rehabilitation Hospitals" in America.Learn More
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