Saved by Salem Place 'angels'

by Donna Lampkin Stephens
Angie Davis photos

David Harding said he probably should have died when doctors at UAMS discharged him to Salem Place Nursing and Rehab in mid-December 2012.

But instead, he flourished there, thanks to his “angels.”

Harding, who will be 79 in October, was admitted on Dec. 15, 2011, nearly five months after being hospitalized with pancreatitis and severe neuropathy.

“I didn’t know where I was or how I got there,” he said, remembering his arrival at Salem Place in Conway from UAMS. “I said they sent me there to die. UAMS said they’d done all they could do. I was laying there deteriorating. We found out after the fact the doctor said (upon his discharge), ‘Three days, and he’ll be gone.’”

But Harding walked out of the facility on Feb. 23, 2012, a far different man than the one first hospitalized July 28, 2011.

“I’m very fortunate to be alive,” he said. “Blessed to be alive.”

He credits God and the nursing and physical therapy staff at Salem Place.

“They’re my angels,” he said. “You know, we entertain angels unaware sometimes, and they come in different forms. There’s a number of them over there.”


Harding first began experiencing stomach pains in 2010, going so far as to describe his symptom as “a king-size stomach ache,” but doctors were unable to find the cause. Periodically, he would get sick, but after laying off food for a day or two, he would recover from the symptoms.

But things got worse around a family trip in 2011.

A daughter was coming from Florida to drive with him and his wife to another daughter’s home in Wyoming. After picking her up at the airport, the family stopped for dinner, but the five-ounce steak he ate led to vomiting throughout the night. Eventually the symptoms subsided, and the family enjoyed two weeks of vacation.

“I felt great,” he said. “We chased wild horses and did all kinds of things, but we hadn’t been back a week when I had another bad episode, and I couldn’t pin it down to anything I had eaten. I just had the dry heaves and went to the ER, and the doctor identified pancreatitis.”

He said he had a pseudocyst the size of a large grapefruit on his pancreas.

“It turned out to be chronic,” he said of the condition. “I’d had it for a good long while. They put me in the hospital with no water, no nothing, for 30 days, just IVs, but I got so weak they couldn’t do surgery.”

Instead, doctors at UAMS inserted a shunt for a drain. He said the surgery option would have been an extensive one involving scraping the pancreas. Later, a doctor told him, “Had we done surgery, we would’ve killed you — no question about it.”

Instead, he spent almost eight months flat on his back with an IV and no food by mouth. The result was severe neuropathy. He shrank from 240 pounds to 120. On Dec. 15, he was sent to Salem Place to die.

“I had people praying for me in all 50 states, and there are some praying girls in rehab (at Salem Place),” he said. “All of them contributed. Those girls have a calling rather than a job.”

As one of many examples, he mentioned Amber Mace, director of nursing, who went beyond the call of duty during his stay.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but she is our neighbor,” Harding said. “(His out-of-state daughters) were discussing how they could get their mother back and forth, and Amber said, ‘That is not a problem. You can throw a rock to their house from my backyard. I’ll pick her up every day and bring her home.’ And she did that for the two months I was there, and when she couldn’t, she made arrangements for somebody else to do it.

“She’s just an angel straight from above.”

Mace said Harding’s transition from having to use a mechanical lift and not being able to put together a coherent sentence had been remarkable.

“They don’t all end that way,” she said. “When he came in, the therapist said, ‘He won’t leave here.’ I said, ‘This man is my neighbor, and he has to be back standing in his yard.’ He walked out the back door after two months of therapy.”

The rest of Harding’s team included Amanda Burton, physical therapist; Kathy Huett, physical therapy assistant; Wendy Poole, occupational therapist; Candace Dumas Dunwoody, occupational therapy assistant; Sarah King, director of rehab; Shauna Spradlin, occupational therapist; and Dewanda Walker, speech therapist.

In fact, Harding said every member of the staff was instrumental in his recovery.

“They wouldn’t give up and wouldn’t let me give up,” he said. “Once I got going, I had a pretty good will. They like to have never got me to sit up in a chair. Then they said, ‘We’re going to walk today; you may not walk but an inch, but we’re going to walk.’ Next it was two inches, then six feet, 10 feet. I tried to get out of there, and they provided the incentive.

“And the good Lord had a lot to do with it. My wife is almost totally blind. I was needed here.”

The staff wouldn’t show him photographs of himself taken at his admission until he left.

“They said I wouldn’t recognize myself,” he sa

When he left Salem Place, the nursing and PT staff didn’t think he would ever walk without a walker.

“But two months later, I walked back in and got my neck hugged,” he said.

In appreciation of his angels, he’s used his woodworking skills to make several rehab tools for them, including a balance rocker, a pulley and a custom rickshaw.

“When they had me doing exercises, they had a little metal bar that weighed 3.5 pounds, and I couldn’t do it 10 times even after they got me up where I could sit in a chair,” he said. “I used to could press 250, 300 pounds.”

Mace said since his discharge more than two years ago, Harding returns regularly with pizza, doughnuts and birthday cakes he’s made and decorated after taking a cake decorating class.

“He is the most wonderful person ever,” she said. “He would give his right arm to somebody if he could. God brought him to me.”

Harding still takes medication and is managing both the pancreatitis and the neuropathy. And he remains grateful for his angels.

“I’m doing good for an old man and what I’ve been through,” he said. “I have a good relationship with those girls. I go back over there as often as I can. I said I’d adopt the whole bunch if I thought I could get by with it. I don’t want to experience it again, but if I ever have to go back to a nursing home, Salem Place is where I want to go.”