Houghton Lake man walking after spinal collapse
The 64-year-old Houghton Lake resident said it was about May of 2011 that he noticed things were changing. He had been doing some painting upstairs when he started dropping his brush. When he went to change a light bulb, he could not turn the bulb to get it out of the fixture.
Very quickly, though, his health started to decline.
While he had no pain, he said his hands started tingling and he started falling down. At a birthday party for his father-in-law and sister-in-law in June, he fell, thinking he had tripped on something.
But he couldn’t get himself off the floor. There were more falling episodes, he said, and while there was still no pain, there was “no control,” either.
“Every month I was deteriorating big time,” he said. Eventually, he was reduced to being able only to “swallow, blink and talk.”
Used to being active, he had served in the 1970’s as a deputy for the Roscommon County Sheriff’s Department and served on the Marine Patrol. He had also been a platoon sergeant in the National Guard in charge of the carpentry section and had worked as a licensed builder for about 30 years.
At first, when Roger had gone to Mercy Hospital Grayling, he was referred back to his rheumatologist. He later went to see his Veteran’s Administration doctor in Gaylord, who suggested he see a family doctor closer to home, so he saw Suzie Blanchard, a nurse practitioner in Prudenville. Blanchard scheduled an MRI for Roger in West Branch.
He credited her for then referring him to a neurosurgeon, Dr. John M. Cilluffo.
“She was a blessing,” he said. “She’s very thorough.”
Initially, the thought was that Roger had multiple sclerosis, but Dr. Cilluffo diagnosed his condition as severe cervical spinal stenosis, a condition in which the spinal canal narrows. It can cause stiffness, pain or numbness in the neck, shoulders, arms or legs, problems with balance and coordination – like tripping – and can be crippling.
And it was getting progressively worse.
“My vertebrae collapsed,” Roger said, “like dominoes.”
He said he was told that if nothing was done, he only had about two weeks to live.
“I would’ve suffocated,” Roger said.
During the summer months, his son, Jason had to take care of him, “feed me, clothe me,” he said. “How he kept it together, I don’t know. He went from a teenager overnight to an adult.”
“It brought us closer,” Jason said.
Jason was also able to keep medical details organized and could answer questions Roger had about things the doctor had told him.
“It brought him closer to his mom, too,” Roger added.
Married in March, 1986, Roger and his wife, Linda, also have other children, daughter, Jaclyn and her husband Joshua Bradley who live in Illinois, and another son, Tony Wojtylko, who lives in St. Helen. (They also have eight grandchildren.)
Linda works for the Roscommon County Transportation Authority and was working eight hours a day, but “she fed me and washed me,” Roger said, and gave him his pills and set up doctor’s appointments. She was unable to lift him up, however, having had cancer the year before.
Roger’s longtime friend, Jerry Timmins, was also there to help.
“This man here, he’s a blessing to me, too,” Roger said.
Jerry and Roger had served together in the 1438th Combat Engineering Detachment in the Army National Guard, Grayling (Roger retired in 1997). Jerry said he had not heard from Roger in a couple of months and called him up.
Turns out, Jerry’s timing was just right.
“There’s no easy way,” Jerry said, to get a 240-pound man out of a wheelchair. His help to Jason became invaluable.
“I was scared,” Roger said. “I couldn’t feed myself.”
Roger’s doctor scheduled him for spinal surgery Aug. 1 at Munson Medical Center, Traverse City. During the surgery, some of Roger’s vertebrae were removed and some bone from his hip was grafted in. His neck was bolted, so he can no longer turn his head freely.
“He put me back together,” Roger said. “Then I had to be re-born again.”
He said his doctor assured him that he “never lost anybody to a wheelchair.”
Roger’s next step was to recuperate at Mercy Manor, Grayling.
“They’re beautiful people up there,” he said.
He went from being bathed and fed to sitting up in his wheelchair.
“Next thing you know, I’m forcing myself to eat,” he said.
The rehabilitation staff called him a “pusher and a doer,” he said. “I wanted to walk out of there. I wanted to walk to [Jason’s] graduation.”
His determination led to his release by Oct. 1.
“The wheelchair is history,” he said.
He has been walking with the aid of a walker.
To aid in his rehabilitation, Jerry said he had put an ad in the newspaper looking for a treadmill for Roger and someone from his church, St. John Lutheran, ended up donating one.
“He’s had a catastrophic event happen to him. He couldn’t lift his arms,” Jerry said. “He came back. His mobility has come back so much.”
In November, Roger, with the help of Jerry and another friend, Ricky Riggs of Houghton Lake, who was also in the National Guard with Roger, attended the Veteran’s Day Program at Houghton Lake High School.
Jason, who is president of the Senior Class, spoke at the service about how he is proud of his dad and his friends as veterans.
“Never give up hope,” Roger said. “No matter what sickness you got. Think positive. I’m living proof. Even my wife thought I was gonna give up.”
“Have a lot of faith in God and love your family and never give up,” he said. “You only live once.”