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Young resident brought joy to 'wheel chair gang'

March 15, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Twenty-year-old Keith Howe never thought he'd room with a guy 50 years his senior- and like it.

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Then he found himself at Colton Villa Nursing Center in Hagerstown.

That's where Howe, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., spent the last 2 1/2 in physical therapy recovering from a car accident.

The residents and staff at Colton Villa "actually made it enjoyable to be here," Howe said. "I've made a lot of friends."

He arrived at Colton Villa on a stretcher. He left Tuesday on crutches.

The center's staff threw Howe a going-away party, which was attended by about 30 of Colton Villa's 121 residents. Everyone ate pizza, Howe's favorite food.

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"I want to say thanks for the kindness and for helping me to get back on my feet," Howe told party attendees. "I'll miss you all."

And staff members and residents said they'd miss Howe, who livened up their lives during his stay at the nursing center.

"We're the wheel chair gang," said Howe's next-room-neighbor Audrey Albright, 77. "He's brought a lot of joy, but he's a bad boy," Albright joked.

She remembered Howe sneakily locking the brakes on residents' wheelchairs before they tried to take off. She remembered them throwing balls at each other in therapy, racing down the hall, trading candy and staying up late at night. And she remembered him fixing things for her when staff members were busy.

"All in all, it's been a wonderful time," Albright said. "I'll positively miss him."

Howe said he was falsely accused of stealing the dentures of another resident, who retaliated by ordering him a soft diet several days later.

"He's fun to be around. He makes the days go by faster," said resident John Rill, 33, who is also recovering from an accident. "But you've gotta watch that guy."

Rill said Howe got a kick out of calling the pay phone and letting it ring until a resident picked it up, and urging elderly male residents to make cat-calls at female passers-by.

Howe said his experience at the nursing center changed his perception of such facilities "in a big way."

"When I thought of a nursing home, I thought it was just a place where a bunch of old people went to spend their last days," he said. "It's a lot different."

Colton Villa's rehabilitation center, staffed by physical and occupational therapists, can handle patients of all ages, said Michelle Cornwell, assistant administrator at the nursing center.

The rehab center also works to improve elder patients' quality of life by rehabilitating patients so they don't require round-the-clock nursing care, said Dean Mentzer, a physical therapist assistant who worked with physical therapist Tammy Kilborne to get Howe back on his feet.

At age 20, "I never thought I'd be in a nursing home ... or in a serious car accident," Howe said.

He said he was mere feet from his home in the early morning of Dec. 12 when he fell asleep at the wheel of his Ford pick-up truck and crashed into a tree. Howe was flown to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore with multiple fractures of his arms and legs, he said.

When he arrived at Colton Villa on Dec. 28, a cast covered Howe's right knee to his foot, a sling and splints held in place the broken bones of his left arm, and an external fixator with pins kept his shattered left leg stable, said Kim Boarman, acting director of nurses.

"We didn't see much of him when he first got here," Albright said. "He was in pretty bad shape."

Physical therapists Kilborne and Mentzer focused on strengthening Howe's lower extremities and increasing his range of motion, Mentzer said. Within a month, their young patient was moving around the halls.

With outpatient therapy, Howe should next be able to walk with a cane and then unassisted, Mentzer added.

"He's responded very well and he's highly motivated, which makes all the difference in the world," he said.

Howe credited his recovery to both the work of the physical therapists and the moral support of Colton Villa residents, whom he plans to visit.

"This is a good example of breaking down the barrier of nursing homes. Everyone here just adopted him," Mentzer said. "There's not that big of a gap between generations."

Just ask Howe's Colton Villa roommate, Rudy St. Clair, 71, who said he enjoyed playing games and watching late night TV with the youngest roommate he's ever had.

"We're both just kids," St. Clair said. "I'll miss that boy."

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