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Work ethic serves man well in recovery

December 7, 2010 - By MIKE REUTHER

Chuck Mertes, of Cogan Station, is used to the aches and pains of his job.

As owner and partner in a plumbing, mechanical and electrical appliance installation business, he uses his body to get things done.

So in June, when he felt what he thought was nothing more than a problem with his back, he didn't become too concerned.

At least not at first.

"I just thought it was muscle spasms," he said.

But a trip to a chiropractor didn't do much for him.

Days later he was unable to get out of bed.

In fact, things became so bad, that he became paralyzed from the chest down.

Tests were done. Initially, it was thought Mertes was suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome.

"They later said it was transverse myelitis," he said. "They told me they didn't know if I could walk again."

Described as a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of the spinal cord, researchers are uncertain of the exact causes of transverse myelitis.

The onset of lower back pain progressing to paralysis, as experienced by Mertes, are common symptoms for many of those stricken with the disorder.

Transverse myelitis often develops over a period of a few days to a couple of weeks, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Its onset can follow viral infections or as a complication of syphilis, measles, Lyme disease and some vaccinations such as for rabies.

Just 1,400 new cases of transverse myelitis are diagnosed in the U.S. annually.

No cause could be identified in Mertes' case.

Understandably, he was afraid of what his future held.

Fortunately, rehabilitation, in the form of recovering limb control, strength, coordination and range of motion, can help patients recover from the disorder.

With the help of therapists at Williamsport Regional Medical Center, Mertes set about regaining his life.

"He had pretty good upper body strength," said Mary Ann Bellfy, a recreational therapist inpatient supervisor.

That helped him with rehabilitation, she said, which amounted to getting him to reprocess his brain to work his lower body movements.

He was really focused, she recalled, on walking again.

Eventually, he began moving his limbs, even walking. His rehabilitation included aquatic therapy, allowing him to remain buoyant and giving him freer use of joint movement.

That he was determined to get better and kept a good attitude about his recovery made a big difference.

"He took as much therapy as he could get," Bellfy said.

Steroids helped with inflammation.

He credits his wife, Christine, with supporting him.

Interestingly enough, therapists noted how Mertes often was more interested in the progress of other rehabilitation patients.

Falling back on his plumbing skills, he was forever "fixing stuff" around the rehabilitation center, Bellfy laughed.

Now back to work, he is able to get around with a cane, which he claims he really doesn't need that much.

Sitting on the back of his truck at his Montoursville business, which he runs with his son, Mertes said he's feeling pretty good these days. He conceded he doesn't have his former stamina and, while he can get around on his feet, he remains numb from the chest down.

But that doesn't stop him from trying to do the things he always did.

A Boy Scout leader, Mertes most recently went on a camping trip with his local troop.

"He is able to go up and downstairs," said physical therapist Margaret Kelly. "He's so independent, so self-directed. He basically does his own therapy."

These days, he is working harder on regaining his balance, gait, strength and endurance.

"Every day something is getting better," he said.

Article and picture appeared in the December 7, 2010 Williamsport Sun-Gazette