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Living the Dream after Decades of Pain: Rick Niehe’s Success Story

By, Allison R. Weder

“I didn’t expect miracles, I expected mitigation. I got a miracle!” Rick Niehe – Phoenix Patient

Rick Niehe served our country for three decades. During his military career, two major back injuries left him battling pain for years. “My first injury was in 1985. I fell on cement steps and the step edge hit me on the lower, right side of my back.” Rick’s fall left him with 2 badly injured discs. He asked about surgery, but his doctor said the damage was not significant enough to require it. Rick remembers he was given pain pills and prescribed physical therapy. “I did okay until 1988 when the spring-loaded cargo cover of an armored personnel carrier’s safety latch malfunctioned. The heavy hatch lid struck me in the lower back. It was the identical spot where I hit the cement steps.” Again, he was given more pain medication and prescribed another round of physical therapy. Rick thinks back on his years of serving our country. “I was better, but never right. Through the years, finishing my service career, Advil and Tylenol were my best friends to mitigate the nagging pain. I was just getting through it. When I retired I was looking forward to living the dream.”

Rick retired in 2015 but he was not living the dream. “If I would go to the grocery store, I couldn’t be there very long because of the concrete floors. I couldn’t stand for more than 45 minutes before my back would lock up. I love woodworking. I found I couldn’t bend over the saws.” Rick lived that way for six years. His wife became used to him having chronic back pain, keeping the heating pad ready. Rick recalls after a particularly bad episode, “I was fed up with it. I went to my Veterans Affairs doctor and asked about treatment. They recommended physical therapy.” But the VA Physical Therapist was not able to see Rick for 3 months. Rick knows, if the VA is not able to schedule an appointment within 30 days, he is free to seek outside treatment. Rick’s wife and son attended therapy at Phoenix Physical Therapy in Irmo, South Carolina, and were extremely happy with their results. Rick inquired about going there and discovered Phoenix is on the VA preferred provider list. Rick is grateful to Phoenix Patient Care Coordinator, Allison Baskins. “She just worked miracles! Within a week it was all lined up. I went from needing to wait three months to getting an appointment for treatment in a matter of days.”

Rick was hopeful physical therapy at Phoenix would help him find some relief from the severe pain he was experiencing. “My civilian doctor tried to send me to a different physical therapy place, but they hurt me. I didn’t expect to be hurt (at Phoenix) because my son and wife went there. I didn’t expect miracles either, I expected mitigation. I got a miracle!”

Rick knew this round of physical therapy would be different after his first day at the clinic. Clinic Director, Brittany Powers Berlinrut, DPT, FAAOMPT met with Rick. “(She) came out and we had a short sit-down introduction. I explained my two severe injuries and we discussed how the other physical therapy folks hurt me. I told her I was just plain tired and asked if she could help me. She said, ‘do you have 20 minutes? I can fix this for you.’ I felt special. She began moving me around and did something to my lower back and I lit up like a candle. That day I felt better.” Brittany asked Rick to come back for his first full session the very next day. He agreed and felt confident he was in the right place.

Rick describes a typical session on his road to recovery. “We normally started out with a warmup on the bike. Then, she had me go through stretching movements. She also introduced me to the big grey ball that I would roll forward and in different directions. We would do hip rolls and leg stretches. Then, she went into the muscle movements with the resistance bands. She gave me at home exercises to do too. I did those before I went to my sessions.” Rick reveals one treatment worked so well, it made him feel like he could start living the life he wanted. “She introduced me to the ultimate: dry needling! My back felt so good after that first session. When you are in pain for so long, any release is amazing. I just felt strong. I went to the grocery store. I cut wood. The pain mitigation was literally after the first session. It lasted two to three days and then the pain came back. She told me it would. I lived the dream for those days. I was doing everything I hadn’t done in years.” This was just the beginning for Rick. He knew the road to recovery would be long, but the taste of living pain-free set him on track to rebuild the strength he had lost. “I broke a sweat darn near every time I was there. They would try the needles again to see if it would be more sustaining. The pain went away, right away. This time it lasted a good 5 days. Then it came back. This was all orchestrated. I had no surprises. This was the plan. 2 months of doing this routine.”

Rick started therapy in January 2022. Soon, he was able to do things he only dreamed of. “I joined a gym 2 years ago for strength training, but I could only do half the exercises because my back would begin to hurt. In March, I was able to get through my first full gym exercise routine with no pain. The gym owner announced it over the loudspeaker. There were a bunch of military veterans there and they were all clapping and high fiving. I felt like a rock star! I told my wife and we celebrated by going out to dinner that night. I will remember that day forever.”

Rick continues to do his maintenance exercises prescribed by Brittany and goes to the gym, completing his whole routine each time without pain. But he knows the Irmo team will be there for him if he does too much. “I was moving a lot of boxes thinking I was 19 again. Something snapped in my back, and I hobbled into Brittany that day. She asked what I was doing, and I told her. She said, ‘you are 67!’ She did her magic, and I was back to myself in 3 weeks.” Rick also trained with Chandler Powell, DPT and Anne Wilson, PTA. “Every session it seemed like I was getting a notch on the gun belt of good back health. They got it fixed in the time they said. I just love those people.” Brittany is convinced Rick will continue down the road of good back health. “He worked hard each day and came in with such a positive attitude despite his years of pain and limitations. By the time he was discharging from physical therapy, he had learned so much and was able to independently control any minor recurrences of pain and get himself back to being pain-free without any help from us, which is always the goal for us; to give people the control of their lives back so they can feel better and do more!”

Rick has new goals now that he does not need to worry about pain. “I’m taking control. I want to go to the next program at my gym. I want to do the bodybuilding program. I have an 18×20 shed and I want to double that. I’m an avid model railroader. I have a railroad gobbling up my living room and I want to add holes in my walls and make it bigger. I like being able to live the dream. I’m going to rebuild the shed and play with trains. It sounds simple, but it’s wholesome fun.” And Rick is grateful to the Irmo team for helping him reach this point in his life. “I felt like they have such a good communication network there. They are continually checking on you, kind of like your mom. When I over did it, Brittany corrected me. She wasn’t scared to tell me how it was. It was like a family relationship. Now, I’m an old guy that’s a shining example that you don’t need to be a decrepit old guy.”

Rick has a clear picture of what the rest of his life will be and offers this advice to others. “Do a checkup from the neck up on yourself. Look out for your own quality of life. You’ve earned a good quality of life no matter who you are or what you are. Everyone has aches and pains. Except me! I am pain-free now!”