MultiCare rehab program helps man who lost leg walk bride down aisle
By Cheryl Reid-Simons
By most reasonable expectations, Tanner Arbuthnot, 24, shouldn’t be alive. He shouldn’t be standing on his own and he certainly shouldn’t have walked his new bride back down the aisle — on live TV no less — at their wedding.
But then again, he’s developed a habit of setting unreasonable expectations and then meeting them.
And thanks to a MultiCare Good Samaritan Rehabilitation Center physical therapist, he’s doing it safely and sometimes ahead of schedule.
Arbuthnot’s incredible journey started January 30, 2016, when a truck pulled out in front of his motorcycle in Puyallup.
“I slammed on the brakes and went headfirst into the side of the truck,” Arbuthnot recalls.
His injuries were devastating. Shattered vertebrae, a collapsed lung, punctured artery and a concussion were just the beginning of a long list of serious injuries. If not for a quick-thinking bystander who used a belt as a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, Arbuthnot would have died before paramedics arrived.
Once at the hospital, he received 14 units of blood during his initial eight-hour surgery. Arbuthnot’s survival even that first night was something of a miracle. After he was stabilized, surgeons had to amputate his left leg at the knee.
The spinal injuries left him partially paralyzed, which meant he probably would never get a prosthetic limb, doctors cautioned. He wasn’t supposed to walk again.
But Arbuthnot had other plans. At each phase of his recovery, he beat expectations, almost always just through sheer stubbornness and hard work.
Recovery 'behind closed doors'
“To be able to push myself past what everyone expected of me has been the biggest blessing,” Arbuthnot says. “It’s not what happens when everyone’s watching, it’s what happens behind closed doors. That’s the biggest thing I’ve gotten from my recovery.”
Arbuthnot started his “behind closed doors” work while in inpatient rehab at a Seattle hospital. He didn’t think the therapists there were working him hard enough, so he took up a dangerous habit. Late at night he would turn up his TV, sneak into the bathroom and practice standing on his own, holding onto the handrails.
He acknowledges it was risky. Given the precarious state of his healing bones and the rods and cages used to put his spine back together, a fall could have been disastrous.
But he had a goal. His little sister was getting married in June 2016 and he had promised her he would walk at her wedding.
“That’s where it all started,” he says.
Sure enough, on his sister’s wedding day he used a four-wheeled walker for the first time and made it down a muddy, grass aisle.
“That was the first time the therapists and doctors started looking at me in a different way,” he says.
A therapist who would push him, but safely
Davidson Prosthetics in Puyallup, meanwhile, stepped forward to loan Arbuthnot a prosthetic leg even though he was awaiting insurance approval due to his paralysis. Once he was released from the rehab program in Seattle, Greg Davidson of Davidson Prosthetics told him about a therapist at the Good Samaritan Rehabilitation Center who might be just what he needed.
That’s how he met Good Samaritan physical therapist Noelle Buell.
“The first thing I noticed, she was like me. She wanted to push me,” Arbuthnot says. “It wasn’t just regular stretching. She was OK with my pushing myself, to a certain limit.”
Arbuthnot knew he’d found the partner who could help him reach his goals.
“Until that day I complained on a daily basis about physical therapy and how they wouldn’t push me as hard as I wanted to be pushed,” he says.
In Buell, he found someone willing to push, but do it safely. Very quickly he told her his new goal: to walk at his wedding, just a few months away.
Buell, who specializes in multiple trauma and amputee rehabilitation, told him she would help him try, but she couldn’t make promises.
“She was the first person not to tell me that it was impossible,” Arbuthnot says. “She told me we’d get as close as we can.”
Buell says she had good reason for her optimism.
“I knew with his attitude he was going to get where he wanted to go,” she says. One of her biggest tasks was to guide him to do his rehab safely and not push past his body’s limits.
“I was just trying to get him to understand there’s a method to this,” Buell says.
Wedding promise fulfilled
Along the way, the TLC network contacted Arbuthnot about a special television series called “This is Life Live.” The show decided to feature him and his wedding promise live on the pilot episode — which meant moving the wedding date up to April.
Through it all, Buell never tried to dissuade him. Instead she helped him to understand how to respect his body’s limits.
And on April 23, on live television, Arbuthnot walked to his bride, Myra, stood during the service, then walked her down the aisle. Buell was right there, watching. She’d come early to help him stretch.
“I knew what to expect, but I still got teary,” she admits. “It was pretty spectacular.”
Today Arbuthnot — and Buell — have a new goal. He wants to be walking in public by the end of summer. As with his wedding plans, Buell says she’s going to help him get as close to his goal as possible.
Arbuthnot still has a lot of pain and several surgeries still ahead of him. He will never be completely healed.
“He’s always going to have issues,” she says.
Knowing that and with the severe pain involved, this is the point where a lot of patients typically start to give in and stop trying to improve, Buell says.
“He’s a rare person,” she says. “He’s not going to let anything get in his way.”