By Collin Johnson
Health and Research News Service

JACKSON, Miss.—When Cory Hunter first sat in physical therapy two years ago, he set a goal and made up his mind nothing would stop him from achieving it. The goal was to be able to lift his head and hold it up without support for 15 minutes.

But Cory—who walked into his Petal home four months after arriving at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson and danced his way to the Junior Prom that next Spring—underestimated his determination in a big way.

In July 1998, Cory was competing in the National High School Rodeo Championships in Gillette, Wyoming. Two days later, Cory was having fun canoeing with friends. The 17-year old and his buddies were playing with a rope that swung out over the water. Cory lost his grip, fell and landed badly on his head on the soapstone rocks about 20 feet below.

Help wasn’t able to get there quickly, said Cory’s mother, Ann. “The boys knew they were the last group out in the water. One of them ran through the woods and flagged a car down. It was a pretty long time before any paramedics got to him,” she said.

Cory was placed in a canoe and medics had to walk him down the creek to an exit path and rush him to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg. His skull was fractured and an artery had been severed. On a Glasgow Coma Scale that grades patients from 3 being the worst and least responsive to 15 being the best and most responsive, Cory was listed a 3, his mother said.
Cory was taken to MRC in August 1998. It was September before his parents, Richard and Ann, say they felt any response from him. “He couldn’t blink his eyes. He couldn’t move his fingers,” Ann Hunter recalled.

“The surgeon that operated on Cory at Forrest General strongly recommended Methodist Rehabilitation Center and said he felt in his heart that this was the place for us to be,” Cory’s father, Richard, said.

Ann Hunter said MRC’s close proximity convinced them. “All of the other hospitals that we were told about were out-of-state,” she said. “We would have been across the country and it would have been awful. We wouldn’t have had the support of our family and I don’t think we would have been able to survive this ordeal without that support.”

In September, when Cory wiggled his thumb the first time, his family started to hope, she said. “You think that maybe if he can do that, then maybe he can wiggle another finger and maybe if he can do that, he can move an arm. You get optimistic,” she said.

She had reason to. By October, Cory was making trips home. Each time he returned to the fourth floor, his therapists were more amazed. “It was great to see him. He always came back better at something and wanted us to see what he could do,” said Kim Willis, a physical therapist. “Everybody knew Cory.”

What happened in four months is miraculous, said his physical trainer Patricia Oyarce. Physical therapists worked together with occupational therapists and speech therapists to bring Cory back. “It was a combined effort of different disciplines. And his family was very supportive. His mother was here almost all the time,” she said.

Once Cory started making progress, he started working even harder at getting well. “He had an excellent attitude,” Oyarce added. “He was willing to try anything.”

Early into his treatment, Cory made goal-setting and hard work his priorities. “You’re not gonna get well by feeling sorry for yourself and not trying,” a now 19 year-old Cory said from his home in Petal. “When I got to where I could talk I told my dad ‘I can’t move my leg’ and he said ‘I don’t ever want to hear that word come out of your mouth.’

“I never used it again,” he said.

Cory and his family praise the therapists who worked with him. “They are saints,” Ann Hunter said of the MRC staff. “The whole time, we just felt like they were family to us. Kim was an angel. She took a special interest in us because she knew Cory was interested in rodeo and she was taking horse riding lessons.”

First, Oyarce had Ann bring Cory’s cowboy hat to the hospital. “We did anything we could think of to get a response from him,” she said.

Soon, they had him sitting tall in a homemade saddle working on his coordination and his smile. By Thanksgiving, Cory was riding a real horse with help.

“That was a dream come true,” Cory said of his horse ride. Today, he can saddle his own horse and ride without assistance.

“It’s just been a blessing from God,” he said. “Methodist Rehabilitation Center is the greatest hospital in the world. And I know. I’ve been in hospitals all over the world.”

Besides the incredible speed of his recovery, the other part of Cory’s miracle is what happened after he went home, Oyarce said. “He was able to reintegrate with the community. And that’s one of the most important things to us.”

Cory danced at his prom and graduated from Petal High in May. Now, he’s studying welding at Jones Community College. He has crafted an assortment of items from his rodeo days—which he says he hasn’t forgotten. Cory said he plans to resume cutting horses as soon as possible.

He makes lamps from horseshoes and tables out of wagon wheels. He’s had several requests for an outdoor grill he’s been working on. “When I’m home, I’m usually out in the shop welding. I’ve got a lot of people wanting things that I’m working on now,” he said.

“He loves it. He makes wonderful things,” his mother said. “He can run. He can dance. He’s doing extremely well.”