Small stumble leaves Snohomish woman a quadriplegic

  • Wed Sep 29th, 2010 11:27am
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist

Cathy Steiner fell off a porch. She didn’t fall far; her neighbor’s door was just a few steps up.

She may have tripped. She can’t remember exactly what happened the night of June 30, but it changed everything.

The 52-year-old Snohomish-area woman is now quadriplegic.

That night, a neighbor whose husband had heart problems called. Steiner, an early riser because she worked at Sea-Tac Airport, was already in bed. Worried about a possible medical emergency at the neighbor’s house, Steiner got up at about 10 p.m. to offer help.

“Cathy went running down there,” said Connie Gallamore, Steiner’s sister. “I don’t know if it was raining. She was in her robe and slippers, I know that. It was just three or four stairs up.”

“Nobody knows what happened,” Steiner said Tuesday at ManorCare, a nursing and rehabilitation center in Lynnwood. “I pressed the doorbell. There were no railings on the porch. Somehow I fell.”

She hit her wrist and believes she rolled off the porch, likely landing on her head.

Steiner had just finished a therapy session in the ManorCare gym when we met. Sitting strapped in her wheelchair, she said, “I guess something like this can happen to anybody.”

She suffered a broken neck, crushed vertebrae and a partially severed spine. Until about two weeks ago, she was at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, the region’s trauma center. She underwent surgery — a rod was put in her neck — before being moved to Harborview’s rehab area.

Spinal injuries at the C6 level have left Steiner paralyzed from the chest down. She has some arm movement and is beginning to move her fingers.

With a Bluetooth headset, she can use her cell phone. She keeps it on a lap desk that has a built-in pillow. “When I discovered I could use my knuckle for the phone, it was a day of joy,” she said. “It’s all going to take a lot of work.”

It’s also going to take lots of money.

Steiner worked as a customer service agent for JetBlue airline at Sea-Tac. She has health insurance through JetBlue for several more months. Steiner needs many medications. She has to be turned at night. She can’t get up on her own, or bathe or use the bathroom. She awaits Medicaid approval of funding for at-home care.

Since 2001, in addition to her airline job, she had worked at the Lynnwood Center office of John L. Scott Real Estate. On Saturday, Steiner’s 53rd birthday, co-workers there will host a garage sale fundraiser for her in the office parking lot. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., they’ll sell furniture, toys, clothing and more. Proceeds will go to Steiner and her family.

She plans to attend the event, where friends will serve hamburgers and birthday cake.

Steiner’s physical condition isn’t her only challenge. A few days before her fall, her husband, Bob, lost his job. He is 67. Like so many out-of-work families, they face foreclosure on their home. An auction of the house is scheduled for December, Steiner said.

Steiner hopes they’ll find a wheelchair-accessible home to rent. At their current home, neighbors have built a ramp for Steiner, but bathroom renovations are needed.

The day of the accident was Steiner’s 26th wedding anniversary. The couple have two children, 22-year-old Jason and Rachael, a 19-year-old student at Washington State University.

“I’ve encouraged my kids. They could get wrapped up in this, or move on,” said Steiner, who hopes therapy will give her the strength to someday return to work. Another goal is to get a specially equipped car and be able to drive.

“Cathy cherishes her independence,” said Sandi Davis, a John L. Scott co-worker who organized Saturday’s sale.

“Cathy has always been go-go-go, all the time, working and visiting with friends and family,” Gallamore said of her sister. “She’s got so many friends I can’t even believe it.”

At Harborview, Steiner met others living with the struggles she now has. One man broke his neck while learning to ride a motorcycle. “He hit a curb,” she said.

She fell on a porch. It’s a stunning reminder of how any life can change in an instant.

When we parted, she smiled and tried to extend a hand.

“This is just another part of my life,” she said. “I don’t much like it, but I’ve got it.”

Benefit garage sale Saturday

A Lynnwood office of John L. Scott Real Estate will host a garage sale fundraiser from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday to help pay expenses for Cathy Steiner. Toys, clothing, household items and refreshments will be available at the sale in the John L. Scott Lynnwood Center parking lot, 19221 36th Ave. W., No. 6.

Donations may also be made through the Northwest Spinal Cord Injury Fund of the National Transplant Assistance Fund and Catastrophic Injury Program at www.ntafund.org.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.