Tommie Higgins' Story

Tommie Higgins smiles in the therapy gym.

Originally hailing from Arkansas, Tommie Higgins’ passion for music led him to Memphis where he soon was working alongside a band.

But more importantly, he found love in Memphis. He married his wife, Diana, and their journey took them to Las Vegas where Tommie began working for a time-share company. After 13 years, the pandemic struck, and he was laid off.

“My weight started to sky rocket after COVID and being laid off from my job,” he said.

With his weight gain, he found himself struggling with mobility. Tommie’s situation became dire when he fell and was unable to get up.

He remained on the floor for three hours while paramedics worked to get a bariatric gurney and ambulance to take him to Dignity Health St. Rose Dominican – San Martín Hospital. Diagnosed with obesity hypoventilation syndrome, he was hospitalized for five weeks. Tommie briefly returned home but he described that time as being “a prisoner in my own house.” He did not feel right.

A return trip to the hospital confirmed a cellulitis infection in his legs. “They took X-ray and cultures,” he recalled. “That’s how they found out about the infection in my legs.”

After several days of acute care at the hospital, he was deemed medically stable. His physicians recommended an intensive inpatient rehabilitation program to help him regain mobility and independence. Determined to regain his quality of life, Tommie researched the best option and decided on Dignity Health Rehabilitation Hospital.

Even before Tommie arrived at Dignity Health Rehabilitation Hospital, the clinical liaison working with Tommie and Diana confirmed the availability of the special high weight-bearing equipment he would require for his patient room and therapy.

Upon admittance, his physician-led multidisciplinary team assessed his condition: overall decreased strength, bilateral leg weakness, neuropathic pain (nerve pain when the nervous system malfunctions or is damaged), and skin impairments among other concerns. A rehabilitation plan was developed focused on intensive physical and occupational therapy, coupled with specialized medical attention.

“I wanted to learn to walk again so I can regain my quality of life and so my wife doesn’t have to stress on everything,” Tommie shared.

Tommie received expert care from his clinical team, ensuring his previous leg infection was resolved through medications, lab work and daily assessments. The wound care team worked on healing his wounds and preventing further skin impairment with a specialized pressure relief mattress.

In physical therapy, Tommie required the use of a special lift attached to a ceiling track for all mobility and transfers. The ceiling lift provided safety from falling, which helped Tommie’s anxiety. Therapists also utilized a Barihab mat – specialized therapy equipment that transforms from different seating and standing positions to support heavier patients during therapy sessions. 
With consistent therapy, Tommie soon transitioned to standing balance activities and walking short distances with a walker.  “It’s a little overwhelming when you are trying to get over using the hoyer lift and fear of falling,” he continued.

Tommie initially required two people to assist with all self-care and mobility tasks in occupational therapy (OT). In OT, Tommie focused on improving his standing balance, posture and endurance in order to independently take care of his grooming. His therapists showed him how to use a bariatric bedside commode and tub transfer bench to safely manage toileting and bathing.

As he progressed, Tommie and his therapists also went on a community outing to a local restaurant. It had been three years since Tommie left his home to go anywhere other than a medical facility, so the outing both served to give him real-world experience navigating an unfamiliar place with his walker and wheelchair, as well as providing social interaction that bolstered confidence in his abilities.

"Everybody goes above and beyond here," Tommie said. "I have never been around so many positive people. They have helped with the physical, mental and emotional side of recovery."

As part of the multi-disciplinary team approach, Tommie and his family worked with dietitians on an appropriate diet to manage his weight and support his wound healing. The respiratory and nursing team monitored and managed his respiratory and bladder needs closely. Indeed, at discharge, he no longer required supplemental oxygen or a catheter.

With support from his Dignity Health Rehabilitation Hospital team over almost five months, Tommie achieved significant milestones – walking over 20 feet with a walker and supervision, transferring independently from a bed and wheelchair and managing most of his self-care tasks independently including bathing, dressing and toileting.

He was ready to go home. Thanks to the hospital’s Care Partner Program, Diana was also ready for his return, having completed extensive family training sessions.

"Diana and my best friend Adam are my home care team," Tommie acknowledges. "They help with everything."

Tommie's journey changed him in ways he could not anticipate.

"Learning how to love myself has been hard but worth it," Tommie declared. "Just don't give up, because it will change your life if you put in the work."