Nothing seems to slow down Albert ‘Whit’ Whitmire, not age, hard work or helping out his community.
On December 12, he was preparing for a trip into town to ride his horse in the Sallisaw, Oklahoma Christmas parade. After loading the horse into a trailer and packing his truck, Whit stepped out to double check that he had everything needed. That’s when the vehicle released and rolled over him.
Memories from that day are spotty, but the 86-year-old recalls making his way to the house to get out of a soaking rain. The next thing he knew, he was airlifted to St. John’s Ascension hospital in Tulsa, OK where he would stay for a month until he stabilized.
The lifelong cattleman, who cared for his own eight acres of land and livestock, was in rough shape. Whit was unconscious, could not walk, talk, or even lift his hand. His back was broken in two places, he fractured his right collarbone and his lungs had collapsed with blood collecting in the right side of his chest.
The medical team intubated Whit and placed him on mechanical ventilation. Doctors operated on Whit’s back and stabilized him. Within thirty days, Whit was ready for the next level of care. His wife Sandy helped get him admitted to Select Specialty Hospital – Fort Smith, a critical illness recovery hospital where he would start the next phase of his recovery.
The physician-led interdisciplinary team assessed Whit and mapped out a plan to return him to the life he relished prior to his accident.
Respiratory therapy focused on twice daily, spontaneous breathing trials – short spurts of time with little or no ventilator support where Whit breathed independently. This strengthened his lungs and gradually allowed Whit to be freed from the ventilator. With that, he was fit with an aerosol tracheostomy collar and a speaking valve. The valve permitted Whit to speak while the collar supplied humidified air to his trachea, keeping mucus thin and the air flowing. Soon, Whit began chatting with his care team about life on his farm and horses; an authority on race horses, those from his stable were a constant presence at the Blue Ribbon Downs Race Track. Add to that, Whit’s family also owned Whitmire’s Western Store, a popular local country and western store familiar to anyone within a 100-mile radius of Sallisaw That popularity continued at the hospital, according to the care team, everyone liked stopping in to say hello to the friendly man with the household name.
Now able to breathe independently, Whit resumed regular nutrition starting with thin, then thicker liquids which progressed into a regular diet.
Therapy sessions became easier as Whit was able to speak with his team. After being confined to his bed for weeks, physical therapists started to mobilize Whit to improve muscle strength and physical function. He started with bed exercises, rolling from side-to-side, moving toward the edge of the bed, sitting up and eventually moving to a chair. As his tolerance and endurance improved, he began standing and eventually, walking and gait training with a walker.
Occupational therapists worked to help Whit rebuild strength in his upper extremities, retraining him on everyday activities required to live independently, such as showering and dressing. During Whit’s stay, the nursing team constantly monitored his condition, administering medication, and because COVID prevented hospital visits, keeping his family informed of how he was doing. Encouragement from the care team buoyed Whit’s spirits, but video calls with his wife and grandson were always a high point.
In slightly over a month, Whit was trekking down the halls covering more than 200 feet with a rolling walker and a small amount of supplemental oxygen. He was ready to transfer to an inpatient rehabilitation hospital to continue building his strength and endurance.
His care team was happy to witness Whit’s progress, but will miss his presence. “He was an absolute joy to take care of; constantly smiling, making jokes and working hard to recover,“ said Rehabilitation Manager and Physical Therapist Lea Hopper. Whit’s response, “I’m looking forward to visiting hours opening up, so I can come back to see the staff.”
Whit returned home recently and was thrilled to be back with his wife, Sandy, and life on their farm. He’s now looking forward to watching his horse run at the race track.