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Getting his Strength and His Smile Back: Ray Ulmer’s Success Story

By, Allison R. Weder

It was an early morning in July. Ray Ulmer got out of bed and began to get ready for work. “I did all my usual morning things but after I took a shower, I looked at my face and it looked like it was drooping on the right side.” Ray brushed it off and continued his routine until he caught a glimpse of his right eye. “I thought, am I having a stroke? I called work and said I wasn’t going to be in. I said to my wife, hey, we are going to have to go to the hospital.”

Ray has a team of healthcare professionals associated with the University of Pennsylvania Health System, including an Oncologist he trusts as he battles cancer which has gone into and out of remission for six years. Ray called his Oncologist who directed him to go to a brand-new hospital, about an hour away, to see a Neurologist. “They took me right in and started doing everything. I felt fine, it was just the face issues affecting me. They did a CT scan, MRI, and 30 different blood tests. Eventually, they ruled out a stroke.” The doctors told Ray he would need to stay the night and more tests would be necessary. One of those tests was a spinal tap. “They took seven tubes of fluid from my spine. What a way to start the morning! Within an hour and a half, the doctor came back and said I had spinal meningitis.” After the meningitis diagnosis, the doctors suspected something else. A few more blood tests would reveal Ray had Lyme disease accompanied by Bell’s Palsy, which was causing his facial drooping. Ray learned the Lyme disease was likely responsible for the meningitis and the Bell’s palsy. Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected tick. Ray does not remember being bitten by a tick.

Ray and Barrie Jo Wambold, PT, DPT

Ray was shocked by his sudden diagnoses. He spent a week in the hospital being treated with medication for the Lyme disease and meningitis. The Bell’s palsy would require rehabilitation with a Physical Therapist. Ray began searching for the right physical therapy clinic. “I looked around for a clinic in the Easton, Pennsylvania area. I checked into a few places, but most said the first available appointment was a month away. Phoenix Physical Therapy said they could get me in tomorrow. I said, great!”

Ray began his physical therapy journey by meeting Barrie Jo Wambold, PT, DPT, OCS, MTC. Barrie Jo, the Clinic Director at the Phoenix Physical Therapy – Easton clinic, evaluated Ray to determine his deficits and goals. She created a customized plan to help him get back to living the life he deserves. Ray says the Bell’s palsy affected much of his right-side leaving weakness and mobility issues. “It hit my face, eye, mouth, tongue, neck, shoulder, right arm and a little on my right leg.” His therapy began, with exercises focused on his face. “We made faces and I had to move my tongue from side-to-side. My face must have looked crazy. They put a tongue depressor in my mouth, and I had to push it to the right side and then push it to the left side.” Ray remembers how one of the clinic team members went above and beyond to make his exercises fun. “One day, I complimented a butterfly one of the girls had on. The next day, I was doing exercises with my face, and she came back and said, ‘here is your tongue depressor!’ She had painted butterflies on my tongue depressor! Remarkable! They have taken my heart and I feel like I have family there.”

The work was just beginning. Ray remembers when the sessions started to include a focus on improving his stability and strength. “After we worked on my face, we did other parts of my body. We used bands on the wall and used the steps. I would step sideways. We used a balance board, and I had to step over it and then do it the other way. I do a lot with my job and my feet go over all sorts of terrain. So, I needed that to get back to work.” Barrie Jo used her creativity to help Ray strengthen the muscles he needed to use again. “We set up an obstacle course. We used rubber mats and foam things. I’d fill a bucket with weights and carry it going down the middle of the room, up one side and then the other. We filled a box with weights, and I had to lift the box off the shelf.”

After three months of commitment and hard work, Ray was discharged. “My eye still has some goofiness to it but from where I was that July morning when I went to drink water and it was running down the outside of my mouth, it is way better. Hopefully, everything will eventually come back to normal. I have at home exercises. I have my tongue depressors!” Ray also signed up for a program at the Phoenix PT – Easton clinic called Phoenix Fit. For a small fee, Ray can continue an independent physical fitness routine using the equipment he is comfortable with alongside the Phoenix team he has grown to care about. “They’re great people. They’ve helped me like a miracle. I want to keep up with it because I may need more cancer treatments. I need to stay up with my workouts.”

Unfortunately, Ray’s cancer came back shortly after he was discharged. But Ray believes he knows the secret to staying strong during cancer treatment. “At the hospital they had a complete, full gym I could use while I was doing treatment. I worked out and kept myself strong. I was able to go to work after many days. I had some crazy reactions, but we got through it. But I think keeping up with my exercises really helped me get through it.” This time he has his Phoenix family to lean on. “All the people there, it’s like we are family. I’m talking like I’ve been going there for 40 years. We talk family, friends, sports, our kids.” Barrie Jo agrees. “As a Physical Therapist, I strive to treat all my clients, as if they were a member of my family. Ray was no exception to this, and when I heard what a long hard road of recovery had brought him to see me, I really wanted to help him to not only achieve all his goals, but ultimately exceed them. The Bell’s palsy had left him struggling to smile, and I wanted to help him get that magnetic smile back. Ray put in the hard work in physical therapy and accepted every challenge I gave him, all the time maintaining such a positive attitude throughout. This attitude allowed him to ultimately regain his contagious smile back, and over exceed his goals.  He currently continues to spread positive energy in the clinic, as he continues with the Phoenix Fit program, and encourages others to reach their goals. He truly has been an inspiration to me and so many others at our Easton clinic!”

When asked where he gets his positive attitude, he has a special person in mind. “I get it from my wife. She helps me a lot. We could be negative, but she’s always there to lift me up. I just have to get out there. I have family, grandkids. I know a lot of people are going through things that are just as bad or worse. As long as I get to wake up and smile that’s all I need.”

Ray has new plans now after recovering from Bell’s palsy and retiring in January. “I want to go to the Outer Banks. My son just moved down there. I want to spend a whole week and do nothing. I want to go on a cruise. I want to keep working out.”