Good therapy, good friends

Paula Coulter, left, and her physical therapist, Lori Powell-Knutson, have developed a close relationship over the decade since Coulter was severely injured in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. (Photo by John Gessner)

Bridge victim, therapist develop lasting relationship

Paula Coulter and Lori Powell-Knutson were Burnsville High School soccer moms, acquainted through their daughters, Brandi Coulter and Christian Knutson.

Their relationship changed after Coulter arrived in a wheelchair at the team’s season-ending banquet in November 2007.

Powell-Knutson had been following Coulter’s story on CaringBridge. Paula and Brad Coulter and their teenage daughters, Brandi and Brianna, were on the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis when it collapsed 10 years ago on Aug. 1. Their minivan fell 65 feet and landed upside down on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

Paula was hurt the worst, with a severe brain injury, a crushed vertebrae, a damaged spinal cord and other injuries.

Powell-Knutson, a longtime physical therapist at Park Nicollet Rehab Services in Burnsville, greeted Coulter at the banquet and offered her services. Coulter, then a Savage resident who had been rehabbing at Courage Center in Golden Valley, took Powell-Knutson’s number.

The two shared a hug and a tearful moment last week discussing a professional and personal relationship that thrives 10 years later.

With a wry grin that frequently punctuates the telling of her story, Coulter contemplated the “B”-word to describe her therapist friend.

“My daughter (Brianna) and her daughter are now both PTs (physical therapists),” said Coulter, 53. “They have to be mean. I said, ‘Do you take a class on how to be mean to people?’ ”

Powell-Knutson, a physical therapist for 34 years, 21 of them at the Burnsville clinic, understands how clients sometimes feel.

“You have to be respectful, but you also have to push, because you know what the body can do,” the 57-year-old Burnsville resident said. “You’ve got to find out what those limitations are.”

In Coulter’s case, therapy meant coming back from a coma and a first attempt at walking that left the fitness nut sweating like she’d had a one-hour workout.

She came to Powell-Knutson in January 2008, still in a wheelchair but able to use a walker.

“We just started continuing to get her range back, her movement,” Powell-Knutson said. “And just transfers, rolling. Oh, boy, you hated it when I asked you to roll onto your stomach and prop up on your elbows.”

“Because I had broken my ribs,” Coulter replied.

They joke that Coulter is an “incomplete,” with right-side weakness caused by the spinal cord injury that affects balance and movement.

“And my brain injury,” Coulter said. “So you’ve got two neural things going on.”

Early in her recovery Coulter also suffered from heterotopic ossification, a disorder often triggered by spinal or central nervous system trauma that replaces injured tissue with bone.

Powell-Knutson, who had had experience with an HO patient, helped connect Coulter with a surgeon to remove the bone. The three surgeries were among the roughly 40 Coulter has undergone.

“They were literally picking pieces of bone out of her leg and hip,” Powell-Knutson said. “I think it was about a pound. It’s very painful to move — not the surgery itself, but to have it in there.”

The surgeries smoothed the way for more aggressive therapy, though the pair had never stopped working.

“We proceeded the whole time,” Coulter said. “She always found something to kill me with. Because you need that. There’s movement she could get, so the movement that she could get, she did.”

As Coulter progressed, Coulter found a personal trainer through Lifetime Fitness in Savage with whom she still works with today.

“With therapy, always the goal is to get them to the point where they can be independent or working with a trainer, rather than always being in therapy,” Powell-Knutson said.

A milestone for Coulter, an incurable runner since her late 20s, was completing the 2010 Dan Patch Days 5K in Savage.

“I wasn’t last,” said Coulter, who now lives in Prior lake. “I wasn’t far from it.”

Powell-Knutson said she worked intensively with Coulter into 2011. Coulter returns for therapy after surgeries, including hip and knee replacements. Another hip replacement awaits, Coulter said.

Powell-Knutson has taken her friend snowshoeing and has another standing challenge.

“You can still get up on the stand-up paddleboard,” she said.

“That’s the next little challenge for me,” Coulter replied. “I love Lori. She is what she needs to be.”

In 2014 the Coulters opened a business, Effie’s Bridal Trunk on County Road 42 in Burnsville, that keeps Paula on her feet much of the day. She said she’s regained about 85 percent of her mobility.

“I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. I wish I could have gotten closer to Lori in a different way,” Coulter said.

Powell-Knutson said Coulter never showed signs of self-pity.

“If you’re busy in life, you don’t realize what doesn’t work right,” Coulter concluded. “You just go do life, and you’ve got to think about some things differently. But you just go live. The more (spare) time you have, the more time you have to be sad.”