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When heart patients come to Moses Cone Memorial Hospital's cardiac rehabilitation program, Kathy D. Thompson knows how they feel.

The reason: As she works with recovering cardiac patients, Thompson is recovering herself.For nearly seven years, Thompson has been in physical therapy, trying to regain the strength she lost when illness and a 1984 stroke stopped her nursing career at age 29.

These days, she watches heart monitors in Cone's cardiac unit and cardiac rehabilitation program from a wheelchair. But that doesn't hinder her ability and determination to do the job.

``It's nice to have someone in front of the monitors you really feel comfortable with,' says Freddi Duehring, cardiac rehabilitation program director. ``And she has a great relationship with all the patients.'

Last week, Thompson's efforts won her the 1991 Outstanding Disabled Employee award from the Greensboro Mayor's Council for Persons With Disabilities. She'll go on to statewide competition.

``She has served as a wonderful example that persons physically challenged can return to a normal work environment,' Joan Evans, Cone Hospital's director of rehabilitation services, told the luncheon crowd gathered at Holiday Inn Four Seasons.

Thompson was stunned as she wheeled forward to accept a plaque and a bouquet of roses.

``It's got to be one of the best things that ever happened to me,' she said later.

Thompson was born at Cone Hospital 36 years ago, the third of seven children of Walter and Frances Thompson. After graduating from Smith High School, she pursued her childhood goal of becoming a nurse by enrolling in Guilford Technical Community College.

She went to work as a registered nurse in 1974 in the intensive and coronary care unit at Wesley Long Community Hospital.

But even before college, orthostatic hypotension had hit. Often, when she'd get up from sitting or lying down, her blood pressure would drop so dramatically she'd faint.

The condition made the hospital nurse a hospital patient in November 1983. In January 1984, doctors believe, lack of oxygen from her fainting spells brought on a mild stroke. Though it didn't affect her speech, it left her with little muscle function on her right side.

Thompson doesn't remember much about those days. ``Every time I would get my head off the pillow, I would pass out,' she recalls.

After two months at the Whitaker Rehabilitation Center in Winston-Salem, she returned to her parents' home to continue her recovery.

Over the years, medical treatment, therapy and determination helped Thompson advance to wheelchair, to a walker and then to crutches. In 1987, she bought a specially adapted van and returned to driving.

Though she didn't want to lose her Social Security disability benefits until she could do without them, Thompson wanted to do some type of work. The N.C. Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services in Greensboro helped her.

``I knew I couldn't come back doing nursing, and that was a letdown,' Thompson said. ``But I was determined I wanted to stay near the medical field. I started looking for things I thought I could do.'

In December 1988, she began working as a volunteer in Cone's rehabilitation services for five hours a week. She took courses to perform heart monitoring, gradually increased her hours at Cone and, by July 1990, worked up to a paid, full-time job.

Now she divides her time between the cardiac unit, the cardiac rehabilitation program and scheduling rehabilitation for hospital patients.

Full-time work gradually meant the end of her Social Security disability benefits, but Thompson doesn't mind. ``I would rather make my own living,' she says.

While she has continued regaining strength in her right arm and hand, she hasn't regained muscle function in her right leg and wears a leg brace. But she's shed the trunk brace that held her upright and is trying to build up her trunk muscles.

Last December, a fall broke bones in her right foot. It put her back in a wheelchair, though she practices walking with crutches for physical therapy.

Thompson can't do any lifting, but she works with cardiac rehabilitation patients by taking their blood pressure, helping them get their monitors on and weighing them before they get on a stationary bicycle, rowing machine or treadmill.

``They are just a delightful bunch,' she said. ``These are people who need to make lifestyle changes, and by the end of 12 weeks they come out so much different. They've learned how to control their diet and their exercise.'

She's glad to be back in the working world, especially at Cone. ``It's very physically accessible. They work very well with disabled people. They try to accommodate you any way they can.'

But she doesn't like anyone referring to her as ``sick.'

``There's nothing wrong with my brain and my two hands,' she said. ``Just because I can't walk doesn't mean I can't perform like anybody else.'

Thompson admits that she didn't think her recovery would be so lengthy. Though she hasn't regained all her balance, she aims to get out of her wheelchair and back onto crutches most of the time.

``I keep thinking that I haven't met my full potential,' she said. ``How you look at it, and how much determination you've got, goes a long way.'

``Sometimes I think I am overly optimistic. But sometimes that gets you where you are going.'\ ____________________________________________________________________________\ Other winners

Other recipients of 1991 awards from Greensboro Mayor's Council for Persons With Disabilities:

* Outstanding Employer (fewer than 200 employees) - Sears Specialty Repair Center, for its willingness to hire employees with severe disabilities.

* Outstanding Employer (more than 200 employees) - American Express Information Services, which has hired 42 disabled workers as well as disadvantaged youths and recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

* Distinguished Physician - Dr. John E. Crews, optometrist at Greensboro Eye Center, for his efforts to help the visually impaired.

* Distinguished Citizen - Patricia Sullivan, for her volunteer efforts with the Association for Retarded Citizens in Greensboro.

* Distinguished Mayor's Council Member - Nancy Summers of Guilford Mills, for her efforts to get computers for disabled people.

* News Media Award - People & Places section, Greensboro News & Record, for contributions to the awareness and promotion of disability issues.



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