Jim Duley - The Unbreakable Firefighter
Firing on All Cylinders
When Jim Duley arrived for his first physical therapy session, he couldn’t stand up straight and was nearly immobilized by pain.
Today, the firefighter is back on the job and feeling better than ever, thanks to the care he received at Georgetown Hospital System’s NextStep Rehabilitation Services.
“I was walking at a 90-degree angle,” said Duley, who lives in Surfside Beach. “It was hard for me to drive, hard for me to sit. Walking was just horrific. The simplest thing – picking up a piece of paper – I couldn’t even do.”
But things have changed dramatically since May 31, the hot and humid day that found Duley and his fellow firefighters at Midway Fire Rescue undergoing routine agility training. As the activity wound down, Duley began to pull a 175-pound exercise dummy across the yard. That’s when a wave of pain shot through his body.
Paul McNabb, a firefighter and paramedic, was there.
“I was the paramedic on the ambulance that day,” McNabb recalled. “We pulled the truck around, got him loaded up, starting an IV, gave him some pain management, and we took a ride to the hospital. He was in the worst pain you could imagine. I was asking, from zero to 10? And he was giving me 12 and 15.”
After being evaluated at Waccamaw Community Hospital’s emergency department, Duley was treated by Dr. Scott Ellison at Waccamaw Orthopaedics. Duley was diagnosed with lumbar radiculopathy and referred to NextStep for physical therapy. NextStep, which provides adult and pediatric rehabilitation, has 12 locations stretching across the Tidelands region, with offices from North Myrtle Beach to Andrews. Duley began physical therapy at a NextStep center in Murrells Inlet.
Nick McClary, PT, DPT, was one of Duley’s physical therapists.
“He was in rough shape,” McClary said. “He was hardly able to move, hardly able to walk, kind of walking in a hunched over manner. I knew I had a challenge ahead of me as far as getting him moving and getting him mobile.”
McClary said the NextStep team began Duley’s treatment with stretching.
“He wasn’t tolerating a whole lot at that time, so we had him mostly doing some gentle movements and simple stretching with his legs, some slight rotation with his back,” McClary said. “You start out very easy, just trying to get things to calm down.”
The NextStep professionals knew their 36-yearold patient not only wanted to feel better but also wanted to return to his work as a firefighter – and that meant Duley had to be in top shape to perform the strenuous duties required of a rescue worker.
“Not everyone has a job that’s as physically demanding as being a fireman,” McClary said. “He even had a goal of being able to run four or five miles straight. That’s not something we typically prescribe as a goal for somebody, but that was one of our goals for him.”
For Duley, treatment included three therapy sessions per week over a two-month period. Soon, his dogged perseverance began to pay off.
Knowing Duley had to be prepared for life as a firefighter, the NextStep team had to improvise – employing techniques that might be more common in an athletic training facility than a physical therapy clinic.
“The heaviest weights we have here are 10-pound dumbbells,” McClary said, “but we have everything from one to 10.
So it came to us loading up a crate and just throwing every single dumbbell in, literally to where the crate was about to fall apart because of all the weight inside of it. We had him picking up that crate repeatedly. We had him doing advanced plank stabilization activities.
“We were basically training him like an athlete.”
Chuck Baker, a physical therapy assistant at NextStep, played a key role in one of Duley’s more strenuous activities. The team called it “The Box.”
Basically, it required Baker to lie on a stretcher that Duley then pulled across the NextStep facility. The idea was to recreate the physical agility test Duley needed to pass once he returned to work.
“We had to come up with things that were challenging enough for him,” Baker said, “so we came up with The Box. Because on his job, he has to be able to carry a 200-pound person 100 feet for his yearly training, so we came up with that and some other ideas to get him back to his job quicker.”
Duley was released to return to work Aug. 19, and, he proudly said, he reported for full-time duty the next day.
“The people at NextStep are just phenomenal,” he said. “You have a really great group of therapists who work with you to achieve your goal.” The NextStep team takes pride in getting patients back to living a normal life.
“I love seeing people get better,” Baker said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and it’s never been like a job to me. It’s a great career, and I just love helping people. That’s what we are in it for.”
Now, months after his injury, Duley is taking four- and five-mile runs, working out and loving life – all the things he told his NextStep team he wanted to achieve.
“I actually feel really, really good,” Duley said. “The therapy that I received was out of this world, and the staff was phenomenal, encouraging me to push harder and harder and harder.
“I hate to say it, but having an injury is an eye opener for most people to do something to get back into shape and to enjoy the life they normally would enjoy. For me, this winter, I’m very excited to go do some snow skiing, to go back to Ohio and do some four-wheeling with my buddies. Those are things I love. Right now, I feel like I could go skiing all day.”
Duley said he has the team at Georgetown Hospital System to thank for his new outlook. “The compassion they showed, the willingness that they put forth to get me back into shape and getting me back to working regular duty was phenomenal,” he said. “It says a lot about the hospital system itself. Ever since I was taken to Waccamaw hospital with an emergency room doctor to Waccamaw Orthopaedics to NextStep Rehab, everybody in that whole process was just phenomenal.
“My goal was to be able to come back to work regularly and to just live a good life, healthy and happy, and I’ve achieved that. It wasn’t an impossible goal. It took some time, but I got there.”
Originally published in HealthWaves Winter 2014.