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Distracted from a full recovery

Corwin Abernathy broke his hip when he stumbled while walking near Assembly Square in Somerville. After surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was sent to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
Corwin Abernathy broke his hip when he stumbled while walking near Assembly Square in Somerville. After surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was sent to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

Corwin Abernathy held open the front door of the small one-story house, smiling broadly into the Florida sunshine. His walker sat inside, abandoned in the middle of the kitchen. His companion, Deenie Coyne, was buying groceries and he was enjoying a few minutes of daring. He limped the 15 feet to the kitchen, then lackadaisically dragged the walker behind him to the living room. When Deenie arrived, she immediately turned the walker around, giving him a mild scolding.

“What did the therapist just tell you? She’s going to have to glue your hands to the walker,” Deenie said. Corky just laughed.

Forty days after surgery to repair a broken right hip, Corky felt ready to leave the walker behind. In another week, he abandoned it for a cane and three weeks after that, he was venturing down the street carrying, but not using, the cane.

It was a remarkable physical recovery for a 74-year-old with rheumatoid arthritis, insulin-dependent diabetes and clogged arteries. Yet, his future was clouded.

On the same warm March day he gave up the walker, he told Deenie that he had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. and taken a shower. She found the bathroom bone dry.

Another afternoon, he wandered outside from the Kmart where they were shopping and sat in the garden center. Deenie was frantic when he didn’t respond to pages and when a 15-minute search of the store came up empty. When the manager finally located him, Corky just shrugged.

His confusion started after surgery in December 2004 to repair a broken shoulder. It got worse during his hospitalization for hip surgery last January. Perhaps because they are often sicker when they break their hips, men are more likely than women to suffer complications after hip repairs.

After the second surgery, at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was disoriented, confused and forgetful, often unaware that he was in the hospital, and occasionally belligerent. The confusion and memory problems continued at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where one minute he was too antsy to sit still and the next he was falling sound asleep. The symptoms fit the definition of delirium, one of the most common complications of hip surgery in older people, although that diagnosis was never made.

Those symptoms can last for months, making recovery much more difficult and increasing the risk of death.

Corky's sudden bouts of vacantness, distraction and disorganized thinking sometimes interfered with therapy, as did dips in blood pressure that made him dizzy. There were also inklings of depression, especially when Deenie needed to take care of herself and couldn’t visit as often.

Corky and Deenie have lived together since 1997, summering at Deenie’s house in Scarborough, Maine, and wintering at the cinder-block house she owns in the Sun City Center retirement community in Florida. They’ve known each other for more than 50 years, since Corky married Deenie’s best friend, Kathy. Complications of diabetes claimed Kathy’s life in 1993 and Corky retired from work as a salesman a few years later. When Deenie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, Corky moved from his native Iowa to Maine to care for her.

He was helping her through radiation treatments for a non-cancerous brain tumor in January when he fell and broke his hip as they were walking near Assembly Square in Somerville.

Deenie is a short, plump, straight-shooter who shares a stubborn streak with Corky, a tall, thin jokester with mischievous eyes below bushy white eyebrows. With her own health problems, Deenie doesn’t like playing nursemaid to Corky, but she knows he needs her help.

In their first days back in Florida after their Boston treatments, Deenie took Corky to the emergency room twice –- once for intense pain in his repaired leg and a second time when the prednisone prescribed for pain relief sent his blood sugar skyward. Repeated urinary infections made Corky more confused, so Deenie took over managing his pills and his insulin.

She pressed him to be more cautious.

He couldn’t stand the hovering. There were angry clashes.

After one battle, Corky bolted the house and disappeared for hours.

“I was being controlled and I didn’t like that,” he said.

He was bored but couldn’t focus long enough to read a newspaper. He was lonely despite a few friends in walking distance. He was feeling cooped up, but Deenie, who owns their car, didn’t think it was safe for him and didn’t know if it would ever be again.

Yet, she worried about how unhappy he was.

The problems continued when they returned to Maine. Corky, feeling “tottery,” reduced the lengths of his walks. He turned 75, but seemed older.

He used a salesman’s tricks to divert questions about his mood. But he acknowledged that he was spending a lot of time napping.

“I feel captured,” he said. “I don’t think I’m depressed, but I’m damn near close to it.”

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