‘Summer’s a warrior’

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After ‘freak’ accident, Summer Phillips Pierce fights back

Photos courtesy Chris Pierce

After a “freak” accident in November 2021 left her with a severe spinal cord injury, Summer Phillips Pierce has spent time at Craig Hospital. She ultimately hopes to regain the use of her hands and to walk again.

By Randi Pierce | Staff Writer

On Nov. 13, 2021, life changed for Summer Phillips Pierce and her husband, Chris Pierce.

It was a quiet Saturday evening, Chris recalled. The couple had watched a concert on TV and Summer went upstairs to get ready for bed.

“I heard a crash,” Chris said.

As friend Sharon Garfield described it on the GoFundMe she organized for the couple, “Summer experienced a freak fall, hitting her head on her bedroom dresser in such a way that it damaged her neck and spinal cord.”

When Chris went upstairs, he relayed, Summer was laying on the floor coming out of unconsciousness and telling him she couldn’t feel her hands.

“I just said, ‘Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move,’ and called 911,” he said, explaining he’s a trained arborist and his training taught him if there’s any kind of a neurological issue, don’t move the patient and get help.

He never expected to have to use that training.

“She doesn’t remember any of it,” Chris said, adding, “Her brain just kind of self-defensively shut down right after it happened.”

The next thing she remembers, he noted, is looking up at the paramedics.

Summer was taken to the emergency room at Pagosa Springs Medical Center, and Chris reported the hospital immediately called for an airplane to airlift her to the ICU at UC Health in Colorado Springs.

He recalled she was first loaded onto the ambulance at 12:05 a.m., and she was in emergency surgery in Colorado Springs by around 3 a.m.

The surgeon called Chris around 5:30 or 6 in the morning as he was on his way to Colorado Springs and reported that they had taken out several vertebrae in Summer’s neck and stabilized it with hardware.

“And he told me — I’ll never forget the words — severe spinal cord injury,” Chris said.

And he told me — I’ll never forget the words — severe spinal cord injury.

Chris Pierce

The GoFundMe page explains Summer woke up after the surgery having no feeling or movement below her chest.

Summer went on to spend 17 days in the ICU in Colorado Springs and 27 days in a rehabilitation center.

“We knew we had to get her into Craig,” Chris said, citing the knowledge, talent and credentials of Craig Hospital and its staff. “These guys are the best. And it took a stroke of luck from my brother, who knew someone who knew how to get her into Craig, and I followed her instructions and, luckily, it worked out.”

Chris reported they went through an application process to have Summer admitted to Craig that included an interview.

Denver’s Craig Hospital is, according to its website, “a world-renowned rehabilitation hospital that exclusively specializes in the neurorehabilitation and research of patients with spinal cord injury (SCI) and brain injury (BI). Craig is a not-for-profit, free-standing national center of excellence that has treated more than 34,500 patients with SCI and BI since 1956.”

Summer began her inpatient stay at Craig on Dec. 27, 2021.

Summer Phillips Pierce

There, physical therapy appointments started at 9 a.m. after a two-hour process to get Summer out of bed and prepared for the day. Appointments, Chris explained, ran about one an hour until 5 p.m., with up to eight appointments in a day. 

Her inpatient team consisted of a neurologist, nutritionist, psychologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, recreational therapist, transportation therapist and more, with Chris explaining there’s a specialist for every facet of being a quadriplegic.

“It’s an amazing place. It’s an absolutely amazing place,” he said. “I just keep saying, ‘Who are these people? Who are these people?’ I had no idea this kind of quality and professionalism existed.”

On Tuesday, Summer moved to the outpatient program at Craig.

Summer will be in the outpatient program for at least four weeks, though Chris noted they’re already working on extending that, though that is up to the therapy team.

The first two weeks, he explained, will be a transition program. 

“It’s intense. It’s incredibly intense,” Chris said, adding, “It’s a school. It’s a world that we never knew existed and had no idea the intensity of what Craig is all about.”

‘Night and day’

Ahead of Tuesday’s move, Summer underwent a series of evaluations Monday, with Chris indicating early in the afternoon the staff was pleased with Summer’s progress over the last three months, including her range of motion in her arms and legs, the strengthening in her torso and her posture.

Chris relayed that one staff member told Summer when she started she was “almost like a little prune in that chair,” but is now sitting up straight with her shoulders back and chin up, and was looking the staff member right in the eyes.

“Knuckle down — that’s been her whole philosophy. Just get it done. Keep moving, keep moving. One step at a time,” Chris said of Summer. “You know, you can’t look at the whole picture. It will scare you to death. So, you just look at what’s right in front of ya and deal with it.”

The GoFundMe page calls Summer’s progress “tremendous.”

Knuckle down — that’s been her whole philosophy. Just get it done. Keep moving, keep moving. One step at a time. You know, you can’t look at the whole picture. It will scare you to death. So, you just look at what’s right in front of ya and deal with it.

Chris said of Summer

“The progress that we’ve seen here in the last three months has been just incredible. I keep thinking about what it looked like right after Christmas and what it is now, and it’s night and day.”

Chris reported Summer has very limited feeling in her hands and feet and is paralyzed from about the middle of her chest down, with her arms “coming back very slowly.”

“Summer’s a warrior,” Chris said before pausing. “She has so impressed the staff here. It doesn’t surprise me, but it’s kind of surprised quite a few of them how hard she works and her continuously — I don’t know how she does it, but her spirits are … 80, 90 percent of the time are upbeat, no matter what she’s going through. And, anybody that’s had this kind of an injury probably suffers more pain than the rest of us will know for our entire lives. It’s amazing, like she just somehow keeps her head up, keeps her chin up and keeps just slugging away at it.” 

Moving forward

Chris explained he’s learned there’s no such thing as a definitive prognosis with a spinal cord injury and the body will continue to heal for about two years following Summer’s type of injury.

“They just don’t know; they just don’t,” Chris said, adding, “The nervous system is a mystery.”

He noted he hears it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Looking at it like a marathon, they’re about 4 miles in on a 24-mile course.

Summer, he pointed out, hopes to be able to use her hands and walk again.

What is known is the couple has to make a lot of changes before Summer can come home at the end of April (if their time in the outpatient program is not extended).

Chris explained they are having to remodel their home to be accessible for Summer in her wheelchairs — work that is made more difficult by material shortages.

Work on the house includes widening things such as doorways, building ramps, getting and installing a stair lift, redoing flooring to remove carpets, possibly taking out some walls and redoing bathrooms, according to Chris.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Chris is also transitioning into a new role in terms of taking care of Summer.

“I have a new full-time job,” Chris said, explaining he’ll be working to meet Summer’s medical, nutritional and other needs to help keep her progressing.

They also, he noted, face the expense of three wheelchairs totaling nearly $30,000 — a powered wheelchair (at a cost of about $20,000), a mechanical wheelchair and a bathroom wheelchair.

They’ll also pay for therapy services several days a week for the rest of their lives, he added.

“The therapy is where the advances are made,” he said speaking of the hope they’ll be able to afford therapy four of five days a week over the next couple years. “She wants her hands back and she wants to walk again. Those are the goals.”

That, he noted, like everything, takes money, with neither Chris nor Summer able to work.

The couple originally decided they would not do a GoFundMe and would pay for things on their own, but Chris noted they have had to come to grips with the fact they can’t do it themselves due to the mounting medical costs.

‘Humbling’ generosity

Chris reported people helped them in ways they never expected.

“We are so humbled at the response from the town of Pagosa Springs,” Chris said, calling it “overwhelming” and “incredible.”

Chris explained a plumber has given his time to help with the house, as has a friend who is a contractor who had worked for them previously and knows Summer’s tastes.

We are so humbled at the response from the town of Pagosa Springs

An owner of a granite business who is also friends with the couple is also making sure the changes fit Summer’s tastes.

Someone else sent them some of Summer’s favorite homemade truffles, which were shared with the staff at Craig.

Others facilitated an after-hours propane delivery and paid for it when Chris returned to Pagosa Springs after 10 days to take care of matters and ran out of propane when temperatures were supposed to drop below zero. 

“That kind of thing has been falling out of the sky,” he said of the generosity happening almost daily, calling it “mind-boggling.” “People have dropped what they’re doing.” 

And that generosity has extended to Denver, with a good friend’s daughter calling unexpectedly and telling Chris he could stay in their spare room for as long as needed, which has saved “countless” thousands of dollars of rent and hotel rooms in Denver, he reported.

“That just fell out of the sky,” Chris said, adding things like that have been happening throughout the last three months. “It’s been unbelievable. Humbling is about the best word I can think of. We never expected this to happen. We never expect people to drop what they’re doing to take care of us.”

He added later, “The driving thing that’s just making both of us get through every day has been the response of the people in Pagosa. It has just been incredible.”

Summer with husband Chris Pierce.

How to help

As of Tuesday afternoon, the GoFundMe campaign had raised $53,755. 

The GoFundMe can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/summers-wings.

For those uncomfortable with online giving, Chris reported there is also an account set up at Bank of the San Juans under Summer and Chris Pierce, P.O. Box 4699, Pagosa Springs. The account name is “Believe.”

Anyone wishing to help the couple in other ways can call Chris at (970) 946-3925.

I would trade all that money for my wife’s health in a minute.

Chris Pierce

“I would trade all that money for my wife’s health in a minute,” he said.

randi@pagosasun.com