Artist Rebuilds His Life After Freak Fall Left Him Quadriplegic
Pain management, physical therapy, and a heavy dose of plain ol’ pluck have helped a New York City artist move forward after a devastating injury.
By Alan Mozes, HealthDay News
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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The abstract watercolors of New York City-based painter Cliff Enright envelop the viewer like a solar flare. Swirling and dashing across the page, swatches of ruby red splash up against vibrant lime greens, deep marine blues, and blood oranges. It's a pigment explosion of day-glo proportions, packing a sensory punch that's joyous and carefree.
Much the same can be said of the man himself. His is a heady mix of good cheer and optimism, an against-all-odds daily exercise in actively choosing to put one's best foot forward.
'It Was a Freak Accident'
That he literally cannot do so is precisely the point. Enright, an active and prolific artist and teacher, is embarking on his second decade as a quadriplegic. In that time, pain rehabilitation techniques and art as therapy have become part of his lexicon.
"It was 2004, and I was on vacation visiting friends in England," he recalled. "I was in a garden, and I dropped a cigarette to stamp it out on the ground. And then I reached down to pick it up, and I fell. I couldn't have fallen more than 3 feet. But that was it. I was paralyzed from the neck down."
"It was a freak accident," offered Enright's longtime companion, Virginia Baron. "He was outside. He crashed, and suddenly he couldn't move."
The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation noted that roughly 1 in 50 Americans have sustained some form of paralysis. Among the nation's approximately 1,275,000 people paralyzed with a spinal cord injury, 9 percent attribute their condition, like Enright, to an initial fall.
What It's Like to Be Completely Disabled
The then otherwise healthy 70-year-old Enright was diagnosed with central cord syndrome, the most common type of so-called "incomplete" spinal cord injuries. Such injuries prompt a partial shutdown of essential neural communication between the brain and appendages below the impact zone, causing partial or total loss of hand, arm, and sometimes leg movement.
"Neurologically speaking, his was an incomplete paralysis because he did retain some sensation throughout his body," explained Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, Enright's doctor since 2011 at the Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Center in New York City, where he's been cared for as an outpatient since 2005. "But the fact is, he was completely disabled."
As Baron, who's been by Enright's side for the past 30 years, said: "He couldn't really even eat by himself, but he just didn't give up -- he was exceptional. I would've gone insane, I don't have the patience, but he did. He didn't fly off. He dealt with it as it came. He never -- and I think this is really remarkable -- he never in all these years once had to take anything for depression. He just always kept hoping and thinking that things would get better."
Medical intervention, though, has helped Enright deal with pain and functionality. "It's important to understand that there is no medicine or surgery that can cure this," stressed Dr. Ragnarsson, a professor and chairman of the department of rehabilitation medicine at Mt. Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine. "So the focus is always on trying to improve function and maintain good health."
The pain rehabilitation technique Enright's doctors employed was to implant a special pump into his spine that routinely infuses a spasticity-controlling medication directly into the spinal canal. The pump works automatically. "The one I have now was put in about 2 years ago, and it's larger than the one I had before, which I used to have to refill [with the medication] about once a month," Enright said. "Now, I just have to go into Mt. Sinai about once every two months to get it refilled."
"I also have oxycodone prescribed, and I take that just when I need it," he said. "Not every day, only as needed -- when my shoulders or limbs ache. That might especially happen when I spend a long time painting or after I have a very severe [physical therapy] workout session."
Ragnarsson described Enright as "pretty stable" currently. "And he is not in constant pain," he said. "But he has been bothered by profound spasticity in his paralyzed limbs, which involves involuntary motion and tightening of the joints. In his case, it has caused increased muscle tone in his legs and trunk, and to some degree in his hands. This can be painful and interfere with comfort, but it doesn't have to be if it's controlled."
As Enright mentioned, his recovery has incorporated physical therapy as well as rehabilitation techniques for pain and spasticity. "Physical therapy will always be an issue," Baron said. "It won't necessarily take place at a facility. It can happen at home. But it's a forever thing."
His doctor agreed. "For those with extraordinary talents, such as Mr. Enright, you want to try and help them gain the skills needed to get back to what they do so well," Ragnarsson said. "But it's a very gradual process. And it took many years of work and social support and -- critically -- a positive attitude and resilience to get him to the point where a little of his function has come back."
Artist Bounces Back With Therapy
That's where his art steps in as therapy, too. "When I was first hurt, I could hardly draw a line," Enright said. "But my hands and feet have been improving all the time. I still can't walk, but with help, I can pull myself up to stand. I still can't unscrew the cap off the glue, and I need assistants to lay out the paint for me and hand me my brushes, but then I mix it myself and do the work."
That said, he acknowledged it hasn't been an easy path. "Of course, it was devastating when it happened, and yes, I did get angry and frustrated," he said. "But I never really got discouraged. I worked with physical therapists, doing exercises, working with machines. And with occupational therapists, who taught me how to work with my wheelchair, work with a fork, work with a spoon, brush my teeth."
"I had really great help," he said. "Amazing help. And I had my painting."
It's a career he's returned to with a vengeance. Indeed, though he remains wheelchair bound, Enright's recovery of some limited hand dexterity has enabled him, with the help of trained assistants, to dive right back into his well-worn process of painting, liquid masking, and repainting.
The result: an enormous output of new paintings representing what Enright calls "the absolute joy of color and composition." Some have recently graced exhibition walls ranging from the Johnson & Johnson World Headquarters Gallery to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Others fill his Chelsea loft to the rafters.
"Essentially, I've been a painter and an art teacher all my life," mused Enright, who described the day he was born in rural Ridge Farm, Ill. (population well south of 1,000) as a blustery, winter day. "We couldn't get to the hospital because of a snowstorm, so they put me in the oven to keep me warm. And then," he chuckled, "they baked me until I was done."
Since then, he's endured more than his fair share of hospital visits. But clearly Enright -- the man and the artist -- isn't done yet.
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