Coulter family: Progress, often in small steps

  • Updated: July 28, 2012 - 9:12 PM
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The Coulter family, Savage, including Paula (second from left)), Brad and the couple's daughters, Brandi (right) and Brianna, survived the 35W bridge collapse and were recently photographed at the 35W bridge memorial. The memorial includes engraved names of those who died in the collapse as well as those who survived.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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The family's minivan flipped and landed on its roof on the east bank of the river. All four were hospitalized. Brad, now 48, Brianna, 23, and Brandi, 22, went home in less than a week wearing back braces. Paula, 48, stayed for more than two months. Doctors warned that she might be brain-damaged and disabled for life.

Paula Coulter grimaced and trembled as she balanced on her toes and forearms, her level torso hovering just above the Lakeville workout room mat. "Five, four, three, two," her trainer counted down, finishing a minute-long strength exercise before Paula flopped to the floor and smiled wide.

She had already spent nearly an hour stepping from side to side and front to back over a low rope, pushing and pulling her body weight with her arms, getting up and sitting down, getting up and sitting down -- 120 times on chairs of various heights.

Such exercises got monotonous long ago, but Paula has forced her way through them since falling on the bridge five years ago. She fights to keep the strength and balance that most people take for granted.

"I don't feel that, physically, I am where I want to be," she said. "It continues to be a daily battle."

She has won far more than her doctors imagined.

They weren't sure, at first, whether Paula would even survive the devastating injuries to her brain and back. During one of her many surgeries, they had to jolt her heart back to life.

After it was clear she would live, they suggested her family start looking for a suitable nursing home, thinking she might never be able to talk, walk or care for herself again.

Paula's husband, Brad, and daughters Brianna and Brandi watched her work her way back as they struggled with back braces of their own. They drove her to appointments, helped her dress, aided her in endless hours of exercise and physical therapy.

After two years, when Paula could walk and move enough to go back to her accounting job part time, doctors told her that she might not get much more movement back. A feisty Paula never believed them. She had been a runner before the collapse. She was determined to get better.

"I never accepted that was as far as I was going to get," she said. "I still have not accepted that."

Two summers ago, Paula and her trainer trudged through a 5K race, carefully navigating every crack and stick on the course. Finishing in 54 minutes, it was a victorious moment. "I was back in my world," she said, smiling. Last summer, she improved her time to 38 minutes.

Despite the progress, Paula knows that surviving one tragedy doesn't bring immunity from another. Doctors last year removed a mole from her back that was cancerous. Her elderly father fell and hit his head, rendering him unable to move or communicate. Last fall, she tore her meniscus while making her bed.

She's struggling to get a surgically installed pain pump to work, hoping that someday she'll be free of chronic nerve pain tormenting her lower body.

"I think, fortunately for us, we are all fine psychologically," she said of her family. "There are days where you're mad. ... For the most part, that moment comes and that moment passes ... when you stay busy your brain doesn't think about that stuff."

Overall, Paula believes her family is lucky. Brianna and Brandi are both studying health care-related fields at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, where they both play on the soccer team. Brad works full time again. Paula still heads to the office four days a week.

"I'm lucky that I'm here with my family and friends and I'm not hurt worse," she said. "I'm lucky that I have the drive to do what I do."

Still, she said, "I would give the world to have my old life back."

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