Former Mercer Islander battles back from injury

Joyce Celms has always been a helper. As a teacher of the deaf and, later, a special education paraprofessional for the Mercer Island School District, Celms has devoted much of her career to helping children overcome various personal struggles.

Joyce Celms has always been a helper. As a teacher of the deaf and, later, a special education paraprofessional for the Mercer Island School District, Celms has devoted much of her career to helping children overcome various personal struggles. Her gifts as a teacher are patience, love and the unfaltering belief that each child has a wealth of possibility for personal, social and academic growth. The former-Islander delighted in her students’ progress, which often came gradually — bit by bit and day by day.

Today, at age 62, Celms is focusing on her own developmental progress, as she gradually recovers from a critical spinal-cord injury that left her nearly paralyzed from the chest down.

On the evening of Feb. 20, Celms returned to her Holbrook, Mass., home after a rewarding day at work and — as always — took the time out to call a list of friends and family before retiring for the night. Her sister and housemate, Nancy Stevens, went to bed listening to Joyce laughing over the phone in a conversation with her youngest daughter, Krista. At some point shortly after this conversation, Celms became light-headed, tripped in an attempt to grab countertop support and fell onto the hard kitchen floor.

Celms was rushed to a local hospital for emergency treatment and, seeing as she sustained traumatic damage to her spinal cord during the fall, was transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

On Feb. 23, Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s most skilled surgeons operated on Celms’ cervical spine (C2-C7), to relieve swelling and pressure on vital nerves and correct ligament damage from the fall. The surgery was successful, and now she must wait for the nerves in her spinal cord to regenerate and once again send the essential signals to her body in order to regain feeling, strength and movement.

After surgery, Celms was able to move both arms toward and away from her chest and to wiggle three fingers on her left hand. She could feel down her back to her rear-end and across the top of her chest. She was having trouble breathing, as her diaphragm muscles are weak, and so a temporary trach was placed in her wind pipe, which will assist with her breathing until she is strong enough to breathe on her own.

Despite her critical condition, Celms’ positive attitude touched and inspired the ICU nurses on her floor.

“That wonderful woman!” said nurse Lynne Fitzgerald. “It was just remarkable when I first went in to see her. She was just so positive and introspective — already mentioning what she would need to learn to do. Like all spinal-cord patients in the ICU, she was devastated to be there, but she showed so much hope and determination. These are the patients that do really well.”

Celms’ journey took an exciting step on March 5, when she was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, one of the best care facilities for spinal cord injuries in America, where she will spend eight weeks of intensive physical therapy, followed by six months to a year of outpatient therapy. Spaulding offers the most advanced and comprehensive rehabilitation services available — including respiratory and occupational therapy, psychological support and programs for family. The environment at Spaulding is as inspirational as the facility’s panoramic view of downtown Boston and the Charles River.

After only two weeks at Spaulding, Celms has already seen “incredible” recovery, according to her doctors. She is regaining feeling in her arms and hands, and is able to lightly grip the nurse’s hand with her thumb and forefinger. Respiratory therapists are working to strengthen the muscles around her lungs and diaphragm, and she is already breathing with ease.

Celms’ ability to speak has been renewed with the help of a trach, which she is set to be weaned off of within a week. Since regaining her voice, she has spoken only promising words of courage: “I can do this,” she tells her four grown children over and over, “I will do this.”

Indeed, Celms’ inner strength is her greatest blessing. She has shown nothing but courage through this ordeal. Her brilliant smile has not dimmed since the accident. Her humor is buoyant as ever and has kept those by her bedside — doctors, family and friends — laughing along with her. She is determined as ever to regain the utmost physical capacity that she can.

Most recently, Celms has started to wiggle her toes and move her ankle. She can also flex her thigh in one leg so that her leg can straighten.

“When I see that red light at the top [of the spire],” Celms said, looking out her Spaulding window at the flashing red light that crowns the Zakim suspension bridge, “I think of that as being my mountain to climb.”

Despite her difficult circumstances, Celms has gracefully accepted her condition, forgiven life for this unexpected event, and courageously welcomed the long journey ahead.

“That night’s fall was like tumbling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole and coming out into a whole new world,” she said. “And now here I am, beginning a new journey to recovery and thinking of what my new future brings. I would like to become a spokesperson for recovering spinal-cord patients. I want to make the best of this experience. I want to help others.”

In the nearer future, Celms is looking forward to returning to her home in eastern Massachusetts. Plans are already being made to renovate the 150-year old house so that it is wheelchair-accessible. Celms grew up in the quintessential New England home, which has been in her family for three generations.

In addition to inner strength, Celms is blessed with a never-ending well of love from family, friends and colleagues. The former Islander said she is “overwhelmed” with the countless letters of encouragement she has gotten on, a website designed to “connect people experiencing a health challenge with family and friends.” She has received well-wishes from family as far as Europe, friends on Mercer Island, former and current colleagues. It is this support, she says, that will keep her going. And there is no doubt in her mind that she will succeed.

“There just aren’t words to express my overwhelming gratitude to everyone. Your words and thoughts reinforce my commitment to work as hard as I can to overcome and return to as normal a life as I can possibly have,” she said. “It’s the outpouring of pure love that’s going to carry me through this.”

How to help

Many have asked how they can help Joyce with her recovery. Her family has set up a benefit in her name. Donations are graciously welcome.

Donations can be made to: Joyce Celms

Mail to: Rockland Trust Company

84 North Main Street

Randolph, MA 02368

Please include ‘Benefit Account’ on the memo line.

This article was written by former MIR reporter Elizabeth Celms, who is the daughter of Joyce Celms. Friends of Joyce who wish to contact her can write to Elizabeth at