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 'Your legs are beeping!' Ocean Springs woman steps back into life with electronic help


May 23, 2015
The Sun Herald
Written by Karen Nelson
 
OCEAN SPRINGS -- She walks.
 
It was a little shaky at first. She watched her feet, because she couldn't feel them walking. She hugged the wall of the rehab center at Methodist Hospital in Jackson.
 
But when Alexa Cacibauda, 22, stepped away from the walker and began taking steps, she cried. And so did her physical therapists.
She was doing it with the help of electronic devices on her legs that tell her lower leg muscles exactly what to do and when. They coordinate the complex movements of a step. Then another, and another.
 
That was December.
 
She was learning to walk again through the Quest program at Methodist. A state vocational rehabilitation program paid for the devices -- which cost as much as a moderately priced sedan -- and she was able to go back to college with the goal of graduating with a degree in education just a semester behind her class.
This December, she'll walk for her diploma at Mississippi State. And probably no one will notice she has leg wraps and foot sensors working overtime with every step she takes.
 
 
It happened fast
Just before Christmas 2013, Alexa, home from college, drove to Wal-Mart to get last-minute items for a family party.
 
When the light turned green, she remembers waiting a few seconds before pulling onto U.S. 90 in east Ocean Springs. Just a hint of caution; she is a careful driver.
 
That's all she remembered for a long time. A woman, who told police she was "distracted," had already run one red light. Heading west on U.S. 90, she hit Alexa on the driver's side as Alexa was pulling onto the highway. Alexa's head hit so hard it broke the driver's side window. Later, she would look at MRIs and CAT scans and see a distinctive dent in her skull from the impact.
 
She had a severe brain injury, but didn't know it at first. She was checked out at the local hospital and sent home.
 
The diagnosis from a Coast neurologist, and two others, was concussion. Rest awhile and get back into your life, she was told.
 
An enthusiastic and rather driven 20-year-old, she went right back to college in force, even though she lived with a constant headache. She took a full course load.
 
Soon she had to pull back, dropping some classes. Friends had to help her organize her thoughts and put them into words for her papers. Her mother drove up from Ocean Springs every weekend to help her function around the apartment.
 
But she kept pushing herself. That's what the doctor ordered, and she didn't know any better. Then, months after the wreck, things started to fall apart.
 
She couldn't remember her middle name.
 
"I panicked," she said.
 
At her birthday party, she dozed on the couch. When her mother woke her to open presents and cut the cake, she asked whose birthday it was.
 
She was getting signs that something else wasn't right -- odd tingling in her legs.
 
Then one morning, in the summer, she awoke at her apartment in Starkville and realized she couldn't feel her legs.
 
 
Dark times
By the time she reached Methodist, she was using a walker to drag her legs around, with a wheelchair backup.
 
She had been in occupational therapy in Starkville to strengthen her muscles, and it was by a chance meeting between her therapist and a public relations person that she even got to the Methodist program.
 
There, she saw Dr. Zoraya Parrilla, who specializes in brain injury and learned what she was doing had been all wrong. Her brain needed a lot of rest. It hadn't healed. And she needed a more specific therapy.
 
But these were dark times. She had already lost the use of her legs from the knees down.
 
Many times she wanted to give up.
 
"But I never really felt like that was an option. I would talk to Mom or somebody and sleep it off. I'd get up the next morning, and it would be a new day and start all over.
 
"I didn't want to stop with, 'This is unfair.'"
 
She didn't want the woman who hit her to stop her from accomplishing her dreams.
 
"I wrote her a letter last Thanksgiving, but I never heard from her. And never expected to," she said. "I did it for peace of mind. I told her what happened to me and what my life was like.
 
"I wanted her to know she ran the lights, was being careless, and this is what happened because of that. So maybe she'll think about it when she's driving."
 
 
'Your legs are beeping'
 
Alexa slept the last four or five months of 2014 when she wasn't in therapy. And her brain began to heal.
 
She went through intense water and other therapy to remind her legs how to function. Then she started using the Bioness L300, which consist of wraps at the knees, foot-pad sensors and remotes for her purse. They are often used in rehab to stimulate and exercise muscles.
 
But she's using them to step back into life.
 
"The more you sit around, the more depressed you get," she said.
 
Stairs are still a problem, but she has worked up to cooking with her mom, driving and exercising at the gym. Running is not an option.
 
She has to be very careful with her feet. There is no feeling. Fractures and even ant bites could be a problem.
 
But she's headed out into the world soon. She'll do her student teaching in Washington and have her own apartment.
 
The reaction in public has been mixed. Her family teases her when the devices give an alert.
 
"Your legs are beeping," they'll say.
 
At Target recently, her battery died and that was quite a jolt, she said.
 
But kids love them.
 
A second-grade class she helped with thought she was "awesome."
She said the boys announced with enthusiasm, "You're a robot!"
 
 
 
POSTED: 6/4/2015