Surgery complications leave Mount Pearl woman housebound and in need of wheelchair lift

·4 min read
Betty Collins has been confined to her home and her rear patio since February. Before that, she was stuck in hospital for five months following back surgery because her home was completely inaccessible. (Bruce Tilley/CBC - image credit)
Betty Collins has been confined to her home and her rear patio since February. Before that, she was stuck in hospital for five months following back surgery because her home was completely inaccessible. (Bruce Tilley/CBC - image credit)

Betty Collins has her eyes fixed on freedom after several months trapped inside her house with no way out.

She used to walk among the huge trees in her backyard every day, but complications from back surgery in September derailed life as she knew it and left her reliant on a wheelchair.

Collins was stuck in hospital for five months, unable to return home because she could not get inside her own house. An accessibility overhaul allowed her inside in February, but she has not been able to leave since, because provincial grants fell short of affording a lift or ramp to get her in and out of the house.

A fundraising drive has raised more than $10,000 for Collins to refit her house, but is still $6,000 short of affording the lift.

"We're close. We're so close to getting this [lift] in," Collins told CBC News on Wednesday. "We just need $6,000. To me, that's not a lot."

Paralysis a shock after surgery

Collins went to St. Clare's Mercy Hospital for back surgery on Sept. 18, expecting to be home within a week. The surgeon removed a piece of hardware that had been surgically implanted in a previous surgery, and something went wrong.

She was rushed in for a second surgery on the same day, but she ended up with a bend in her spinal cord and no feeling from her diaphragm to her toes.

A third surgery in November helped bring back some feeling, and Collins hopes she will walk again, despite being told otherwise by some doctors.

Throughout the ordeal, she was devastated to be confined to her room at St. Clare's without the chance to go home to her husband, dog and her beloved trees.

She recalls a heartbreaking conversation with her surgeon late last year about what her future could hold.

"He said if you can't get renovations done to your house, you'll have to go to a long-term care facility," Collins said, with tears welling in her eyes. "That came to me calling my husband and telling him I can never come home again."

Accessible designers come through

Social workers helped her find what funding was available through places like the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation. Collins also enlisted the help of a new company called Birch Consulting — led by Kelly McGuire and Josh Menchions — which makes accessibility its mission.

The duo did the design work for the overhaul of her house. A wall was taken down to give her room to turn around in her wheelchair, and the bathroom was renovated to be completely accessible. The back deck, which sits about 10 feet off the ground, was lifted by a foot to be level with the door so Collins could at least get some fresh air.

Kelly McGuire stepped in to design Collins's house and make it accessible so she could leave the hospital and return home.
Kelly McGuire stepped in to design Collins's house and make it accessible so she could leave the hospital and return home.(Submitted by Kelly McGuire)

McGuire also tracked down a second-hand lift, which is set to be installed at the back deck on May 5 if the GoFundMe efforts go well.

"Renovating existing homes is very challenging and in some cases it's not possible to accommodate someone in their own home," McGuire said. "In this case we're very glad we could do that. Betty's life is going to be very different from how it was before, but she is very happy to come home."

There was a limitation to their work situation: Menchions, who also uses a wheelchair, couldn't get inside and Collins couldn't get outside. Despite the distance, they formed a friendship, and neither can wait for the day a lift can bring them together for a celebration.

Josh Menchions and Collins speak through a gap in the railing of Collins's backyard deck. He can't get up to her level, and she can't get down to his. They hope a wheelchair lift will soon bring them together.
Josh Menchions and Collins speak through a gap in the railing of Collins's backyard deck. He can't get up to her level, and she can't get down to his. They hope a wheelchair lift will soon bring them together.(Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Menchions started the company out of frustration with not being able to get inside most places in and around St. John's. Collins now unfortunately understands his struggle.

"Every single day, these fall out of my face," she said motioning to the tears on her cheek. "It's a huge adjustment."

Collins now advocates for universal design to anyone building new homes. Make it accessible in the beginning and people will never have to deal with cumbersome renovations if anything should happen later on, she said.

She remains hopeful she'll not only get a lift installed, but also get more feeling back in her legs. She can stand for brief periods, to the delight of her doctors and therapists, and she hopes to take steps in the near future.

In the meantime, she has her sights set on the great outdoors, and eliminating the minuscule but insurmountable distance between herself and the beloved trees in her backyard.

"These trees on this property are my life. Besides my puppy dog, and my husband and my daughter, those trees keep me [going]. They're what buoyed me up."

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