EL DORADO, Ark. (AP) - Billy Dennis is lucky to be alive.
After suffering a traumatic work-related head injury in the field in 2008, the Magnolia native lay comatose in a Hot Springs hospital while doctors fought to keep brain swelling down.
During work on a bromine well, a length of thick steel casing weighing about 600 pounds had fallen from a piece of equipment and landed on Dennis' head and arm from 30 feet high. It easily could have, and by real-world averages, probably should have, killed him.
Following three tense days, he was pulled from the coma successfully, but the recovery period from there was slow and laborious, with time in various hospitals and with various specialists. Nerve damage was so extensive that at one point he had complete loss of the use of his left arm.
"Of course, besides the death of my father, the most difficult moment in my life was the day I realized the extreme amount of change that this injury would cause to my life, and the life of my family," Dennis, now 34, said.
"I was no longer able to work in a field that had provided a successful living for my family. Even the most simple tasks were difficult to complete due to only having the use of one arm. Even performing the roles of a father to my son were difficult."
He spent two and a half years under the care of an occupational therapist who helped him recover from his severe injuries to a large extent, giving him functional use of his left arm where he could complete most daily activities. But working in an oil field again - that just wasn't going to be possible.
But he did need to find a way to provide for himself and his family.
And while heavy manual labor no longer was possible, his injuries opened the door to options that he never before had considered.
"Through my experience as a patient I discovered how beneficial this type of medical treatment was to helping people regain their ability to function in the meaningful activities of their lives," he said. "It's amazing what a difference it makes to be able to dress yourself independently, and I felt a great desire to become involved in helping others accomplish things like this."
After recommendations from therapists that he had met, Dennis decided to seek out the occupational therapy assistant program at South Arkansas Community College.
Program director Dr. Sandra Pugh remembers the day.
"The first thing he said was 'I was a roughneck on an oil rig, but I had an injury. I have been receiving occupational therapy, and I want to become an occupational therapy assistant,'" Pugh said. "Billy is an excellent student and began the program with the right attitude and motivation to pursue his dream."
Because Dennis still does face some physical limitations because of the nerve damage in his left arm, learning in a hands-on field like occupational therapy had difficulties even beyond the typical program rigors that all students face, he said.
"I faced many challenges involving adapting certain skills and techniques to allow them to be performed with the use of one hand," he said. "With the advice and guidance of my instructors I was able to be successful. Dr. Pugh and (OTA instructor Cindy) Meyer both were very encouraging of my attempt to work towards my goal despite my disability, and that spoke volumes about the integrity and commitment they have."
Pugh said that Dennis' integrity and commitment also are exemplary.
"The first day of class he began to problem solve how he would help other people with only the use of one arm. Faculty and Billy collaborated during class activities to assist in creatively adapting clinical activities so they were safe for his patients, but would work to get a therapeutic effect," Pugh said. "He always worked very hard to complete all the learning activities, never asked for accommodation and always came with a creative solution."
Billy Dennis might indeed be lucky to be alive, but he is thriving.
Graduating with an associate's degree in August of this year, he now is a certified occupational therapy assistant and is employed at Christus St. Michael's Rehabilitation Hospital in Texarkana, Texas.
"I am so proud of Billy and glad to have him as a professional peer in the profession. He is a shining example of motivation and hard work to change his career and his life," Pugh said. "His rehabilitation is an excellent example of the occupational therapy process and how occupational therapy helps people change their lives in spite of disability or illness, and go on to live life at its fullest."
Dennis lauded the input that Pugh and Meyer had on his educational experience, and his life.
"I greatly enjoyed the time I spent at SouthArk. The friendly, welcoming atmosphere at SouthArk makes it easy to focus on learning and performing at your best as a student," he said.
"The instructors at SouthArk provide in-depth, evidence-based training and education concerning the field of occupational therapy. Dr. Pugh and Mrs. Meyer both put in many hours and vast amounts of hard work to provide skills and education that make their graduates some of the most sought-after professionals in this career field.
"SouthArk as a whole is an environment that promotes learning and success in each of the educational programs it offers."
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