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High school helped custodian who needed back surgery

January 27, 2019
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In this Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019 photo, custodian Phillip Cooper pushes in a chair in the commons area as part of his morning routine at Rustburg High School in Rustburg, Va. Rustburg High School hosted two events, as part of Red Devil in Need, which was started to help support Cooper and raise money for his back surgery. Since his surgery Cooper has been pain-free in his back and legs, and he's moving around and resting better. (Liz Ramos/The News & Advance via AP)

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Around 5:45 a.m. on a Wednesday, Phillip Cooper walked into the main office of Rustburg High School, clocked in for work and started turning on the lights, signifying the start of another school day.

But for Cooper, a custodian at the school, that Wednesday wasn’t just another day. It was his first day at work after having back surgery Dec. 12.

To Cooper, the faculty, staff and students have felt like a “big ol’ happy family” since he started working as a custodian for the school in September 2017.

“If it wasn’t for Rustburg High School, I don’t think I would be where I am today,” Cooper said.

Rustburg High School hosted two events — Hoop for Coop, a charity student-versus-faculty basketball game, and a Whatever K, as opposed to a traditional 5K — as part of Red Devil in Need, which was started to help support Cooper and raise money for his back surgery.

Through the two events, Cooper said the school was able to raise about $5,000 of the $29,700 the Coopers need to pay for the surgery.

“It makes you feel good because I never thought I would have that at any given time,” Cooper said. “I couldn’t have asked for no better family at Rustburg High School or the community. They’ve all been just great. I’m very humbled and very blessed that I work at Rustburg High School.”

The day before he went back to work, Cooper and his wife Carol patiently waited in the lobby of Dr. Dilantha Ellegala’s office for his appointment and to find out what the next steps would be in his recovery.

Cooper had a herniated disc, bulging discs and other issues. Although he isn’t sure exactly what caused his back problems, he said he thinks it stems from an accident about 35 years ago when he was working at a convenience store and “all those drinks fell on top of me.”

“I had been in pain pretty much ever since,” he said.

When asked by The News & Advance after the appointment if he could go back to work, Cooper replied, “Yes, I can!” with a big smile on his face as his wife erupted in a cheer.

Back at work, Cooper whistled as he slowly walked around the first floor of the school, turning on lights, checking entry doors to ensure they were locked, looking for any leaks and picking up and hanging fallen class president posters.

After being out of work for a few weeks, Cooper said it was difficult to remember which key belonged to certain doors or lights.

“It’s good to be back,” he said.

Cooper said since his surgery he has been pain-free in his back and legs, and he’s moving around and resting better.

“They did an inch-and-a-half incision on my back. The surgery went real good. I was up about the same day and came home the same day,” he said. “I sleep better at night time. I used to get up four, five times throughout the night, but now I don’t get up at all. I’m really blessed.”

Carol Cooper said the surgery not only made the pain go away, but Phillip Cooper’s mood also improved. She said their grandchildren used to call him “Grumpy Grandpa,” but “now he’s happy and smiling.”

Ellegala said back pain affects many patients’ mood and personality.

“Until the pain is gone, (the patient) and the family don’t realize how much of an effect it had,” Ellegala said.

During his weeks of recovery, Cooper took precautions in his movements, making sure he didn’t twist, turn and bend. He said he spent his days walking at least half a mile, reading the Bible and sitting around doing crossword puzzles.

“Pretty much my wife has been taking care of me like a drill sergeant. She gives me a little list of things to do while she’s gone,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he was “going crazy” staying at home for so long because at work, he’s motivated all the time, and he’s “not one to sit down, sit still.”

On his first day back to work, Cooper kept himself busy by pushing each chair one by one into the tables in the commons area and sweeping. When custodian Dana Lewis walked into the commons area to pick up trash, she smiled at the sight of Cooper back at work.

“Give me a hug,” Lewis said. The coworkers talked about Cooper’s surgery and recovery. Cooper will have four weeks of physical therapy twice per week to strengthen his back muscles.

“Are you keeping him in line?” Assistant Principal Will Cartwright asked Lewis as he walked by.

Lewis said she would make sure Cooper didn’t do anything he wasn’t supposed to, such as lifting more than 10 pounds, mopping and clearing the grounds outside.

“You went and got something fixed, so we’re going to make sure it stays fixed,” Lewis said. “We love you, Mr. Cooper.”

Lewis said the custodial staff has missed having Cooper around, and they’re glad to have him back.

“When you work with somebody for so long and then they’re not there, you miss them,” she said. “We’re just happy to see he’s feeling much better, and his surgery has improved his quality of life.”

Throughout the rest of the morning, teachers and staff members welcomed Cooper back and asked how he was feeling.

For about an hour, Cooper sat in the custodial break room anxiously waiting for the first lunch period to be over so he could get back to work. He said during this time he’s usually outside mowing the lawn, raking leaves or inside changing light bulbs, but his surgery has put restrictions on what he’s able to do at work.

When the bell rang around 11:25 a.m., Cooper shot up and out of his seat.

“Is it time? Is it time?” Cooper asked the other custodians. They nodded their heads.

“Time to rock ‘n’ roll,” he said.


Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/

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