My parents and I got back to our hotel room around 10 p.m. Friday night. Five days of aggressive therapy that pushed me to my limits and beyond, was over. I positioned my chair to my designated spot inside the cramped living area and leaned back to relax with my emotions. My shirt rose up revealing the belt loop of my pants and as I looked down I realized that the waist line of my pants had become very loose. “That’s weird”, I thought, and called my dad over to tighten my belt. I lifted up my shirt revealing my stomach, and we both looked at each other with eyes wide.
“Is my stomach smaller?”, I asked.
“I believe it is”, my dad replied and a smile spread across both of our faces.
Within five days of therapy at Project Walk my abs had become tighter and the infamous quad belly, which so many high-level injuries across the globe must endure, had reduced in size. When the abs cease to work after spinal chord injury, this causes a pooch to develop in the abdomen region which can only be reversed by the recovery of the abdominal muscles. Because of some recovery, spasms and high metabolism my quad belly never got very big, but in the past two years I had never seen my belly as flat as that moment.
The rest of the evening I couldn’t help but continually look at my stomach and stare in amazement at what one week of aggressive therapy accomplished. Before spotting my newly tightened abs, I knew that Project Walk was having some effects on my body and as the week went by it was obvious progress was being made. My joints had little pain and felt stable and my arms felt quite a bit stronger. A new sensation of stability and tightness was felt in my abs and lower back, and there was a better connection to the various parts of my body. But until I saw that flat stomach, the reality had not yet hit me that a Project Walk style program could have tremendous effects on the physical restoration of my body. My amazement increased even more so, when I sat on the edge of the hotel bed that night before going to sleep and found myself sitting up straighter, using more of my lower back muscles to keep myself erect. The answer to the question of what my next step should be seemed clear but many thoughts still needed to be processed.
When we arrived in San Diego on Sunday afternoon, it was quite a culture shock at first. Driving down the interstate I stared at the tile roofs and stucco style housing cramped together along the hilly streets and felt as if I was in another country. Each house seemed to be sitting on the edge of sandy cliffs which could give way and collapse at any moment. Traffic was horrendous and people flew by our light blue minivan as if we accidentally stumbled into a drag race. My dad had not yet grown accustomed to Southern California style driving and a few people let him know it.
40 minutes later we pulled into Oceanside, a military town along the beach just outside of Carlsbad where Project walk is located. The town was rather dirty and run down and was not quite what we expected. It was obvious all three of us were not really impressed with Southern Cal in general at the moment but nobody was voicing their opinions quite yet. The hotel room did not lift our spirits much as we were expecting a sweet and got a big bedroom with a couch and a mirror crammed in. The bathroom was adequate but definitely wouldn’t make things easy on us.
I decided to venture out around the hotel a bit and get a feeling for the Californians I’d heard so much about. Apparently the myth is that people in California are not as friendly to strangers as they are in the South. I was told by many, that people who pass you by on the streets or what not, do not tend to say hello as they do in the Southern states. My first impression was that there was a large mixture, some people would say hello, some would give a slight nod, others would look and look away, and then there was the people who just ignored you. I would come to learn that there’s really no status quo to how people act in Southern California because every type of person which could possibly exist in the world can be found in there. I myself, whether I’m in California, or North Carolina will continue to say hello to people, but it’s nice to not feel the pressure of having to say hello to everyone you pass. You can completely ignore someone and not be considered an asshole.
The biggest adjustment to being in Southern California was the immense amount of people. My parents and I headed over to the Oceanside peer and were quite taken aback as we looked over the railing onto the beach and found thousands of people soaking up the rays. Never in my life had I seen such a crowded beach. It felt exhilarating to be in such an atmosphere but of course I was disappointed when I scanned over the surroundings and found the male to female ratio to be about a hundred to one. Before arriving in Southern California I had envisioned a place where beautiful women in bikinis were everywhere, so much so that you could not escape it. Apparently, either I was wrong, or Oceanside isn’t where you find the beautiful women. Being that I was in a military town I decided Oceanside wasn’t for me.
Later on that afternoon we met some family at a beachside Park near San Diego. Once again there were people everywhere, still not very many women, but I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere. Surfers were out by the hundreds as a big swell had just hit the coast that morning. I enjoyed my time spent with the family and the scenery grew quite beautiful when the sun began to set over the Pacific Ocean. I sat on the edge of the bluff, and felt the ocean air across my skin and let San Diego soak into my skin. At the time it was absorbing quite nicely.
The next morning we decided to check around for different hotel’s and made a reservation for one in Carlsbad, closer to Project walk. After checking into the hotel we headed over to my first appointment. I really had no idea what to expect and was very surprised that upon arrival we jumped straight into working out. There was not much planning or talking about what would occur. Their motto is, use it or lose it, so before there was any chance of losing it we went ahead and started using it.
The first day was a whirlwind of activity and an intensity of working out which I had never experienced before. After a quick evaluation by my trainer Bobby, we began working on my legs, initiating spasms to try and kick start whatever control I had. He felt a good amount of stuff going on in my left leg and a little bit in my right. He mentioned later that he thought the left side of my body was much further along than my right. From start to finish the exercising never stopped. Even when he would walk away to get a piece of equipment he would tell me to do some sort of exercise with my arms.
The type of exercising Project Walk incorporates really pushed me out of my comfort zone on the first day. I get rather distressed and anxious whenever I am involved in two-man lifts in which one person grabs me from behind and another person grabs me by my legs. I think my anxiety is stemmed from feeling completely out of control and also because in the past I have had a lot of shoulder pain during these lifts. But I had to push myself past these feelings because I quickly discovered that this style exercise involves a great deal of body manipulation. There are no exercises which are done within the confines of your chair. It is their theory that the body gets used to sitting in the chair and the support which it gives you, so that putting the body into positions it is not used to shocks the nervous system into working again. During the week I was put on my stomach with no wedge, something I’m not used to. I was put in a kneeling position, a crawling position, and did exercises while standing. Basically, all the positions babies go through in their development. It seemed I was constantly being lifted from one position to another, from the mat to the floor, floor to my chair, chair to standing, and so on. The first day I was put on what is called the total gym, which is a piece of equipment that simulates the leg squat exercise. My knees would be locked out with my body at an angle and the trainer would bend and straighten my knees. I was able to resist coming down to a bent position but could not straighten my knees out. The paralyzed muscles of my body tend to have a much easier time at resisting movements than initiating them.
Another interesting device I used on the first day was the gait trainer. My dad has been anxious for me to use this type of training since I was injured. The gait trainer involves a harness which wraps around the crotch area and waste. A winch then lifts you up in the air leaving your legs hanging towards the floor. People with a lot of movement use this device to simulate walking but for me they attached my feet to an elliptical machine which moves your legs back and forth somewhat like you are cross-country skiing. It was a great feeling.
After my first day of therapy I wasn’t quite sure what I thought about Project Walk yet. The exercise regimen was so aggressive that I thought maybe it could be harmful to my body. During exercising I was getting some pain in my right knee and also in my right hip. My neck felt pretty strained from the various positions I was put in and I was kind of worried about the hardware in my neck. I thought it was a good idea to push the body but at the time it seemed safety was not a big issue and I thought pushing the body so aggressively could cause me harm. It was my hope I would be completely blown away by the organization right off the bat and it didn’t happen that way. But I was still very curious to see how the rest of the week would pan out.
I thought my neck would be killing me the next morning but it turned out what I thought were compromising positions actually stretched my neck out and I had increased the range of how far I could look from right to left. My muscles were sore but not in a bad way and felt ready to go another around. I seem to remember pushing myself very hard that second day. One of their main goals for all their clients is to develop a strong core. These are all the muscles which keep your body sitting up straight and erect. Without a strong core it is impossible to walk and impossible to be in a manual chair. They were surprised by the amount of balance I already had as I have had some recovery in the abdominal area but I don’t think they were impressed with my overall strength. We continually tried to do various exercises which left me landing flat on my face. I remember this happening repeatedly while in the crawling position. But every trainer I worked with was confident I could get much stronger if directed down the appropriate path of training.
At the end of my second day I was feeling very motivated and encouraged. I was beginning to believe in the possibilities. But as we were leaving my energized feeling quickly came crashing down when my dad found the beginning stages of a rather large pressure sore on my lower back. I do a great deal to try and prevent pressure sores and in an instant I get one on my back. I immediately began to blame the trainers and thought that maybe carelessness had become an issue. My fear of overly aggressive training seemed to have come true.
My parents and I tracked down this stuff called Duaderm which helps to heal pressure sores. It had been a couple hours since we noticed the sore and when we placed the Duaderm on the affected area it was already looking much better so I was happy about that but still frustrated. That night when going to bed we found a couple other areas of question on my tailbone. I was not at all a happy camper but I quickly fell into a deep slumber as jet leg and training had completely tuckered me out.
The next day at Project walk I showed the trainer’s my new sore and expressed my frustrations. Apparently this is the first time anyone had ever developed a new sore while exercising. It was good to know actually that this type of thing didn’t happen all the time and I was a unique scenario. This led me to believe that it wasn’t due to carelessness but more so me being so bony. That day all of my exercises were done off of my rear. My confidence was increased more so in Project Walk by how adamant they were in staying of the affected areas. I had begun to worry that health and safety was not a big issue with them but they proved me wrong by being much more careful once they realized the sensitivities of my skin. My first trainer for that day was disappointed that he couldn’t really hand it to me but I don’t see how he could have pushed me much harder. Just after the first hour I thought my arms were going to fall off. Even though I couldn’t sit on my rear for three hours I still got one heck of a workout.
My fourth and fifth day with Project walk continued to go very well. With each day I began to grow more encouraged and motivated to succeed and my confidence in the program was increasing by the minute. I have always thought from the very beginning of my injury that I had an immense amount of potential and I have been confused as to why this potential has not revealed itself. I’ve always thought I have worked very hard in my rehabilitation but after attending Project Walk for one week I now realize that I have barely scratched the surface. I have not provided the appropriate path for recovery due to many factors. One being my frustration with my home life. My dad has constantly wanting me to do more to try and facilitate recovery but in many aspects of my life I’ve developed an emotional barrier to both of my parents. Most always I try and refrain from agreeing with my father even if it’s something I agree with and already being so dependable on my parents, I have trouble asking them to help me with exercises. Yes, I am stubborn and I would change if I could. Even if I do suck it up and get my dad to do recovery based exercises, mentally I am never there and if I am not there mentally than the exercises are almost completely pointless.
Secondly, even when I leave the house to do my own exercising I still don’t feel that I am totally there mentally. I am simply going through the routine and doing what I think I have to do and usually the exercises I participate in are what ever is convenient. I usually refrain from leaving my chair to do exercises and this goes against everything Project Walk stands for. I need to be out of my chair doing whole body workouts instead of lifting a few weights and believing I’m doing something special for myself. Specific exercises are needed for recovery, and I have not been doing them.
A third factor which has hindered my recovery is that I have not been surrounded by a positive atmosphere of hope and recovery. It is true that everything we need is inside of us but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to tap into these abilities. Almost all of us need support and encouragement. While at Project Walk I truly began to believe that anything is possible and there’s no reason why these possibilities cannot happen to me. Over the past two years I’ve been telling myself that anything is possible in my life, especially concerning my recovery, but have I truly believed it? I don’t think so. I hate to say this, but until Project Walk, all therapies I have been involved with had an underlying sense of despair within them. Some more than others, but nevertheless most of my therapy was not based on the hope of the possibilities. Especially now that I’m two years out of my injury, I would say 95% of rehabilitation gyms would be very pessimistic at how much recovery I could gain from this point on. But Project Walk helps me to believe that not only could I recover some function, but I could walk again. They do admit that they don’t know what is going to happen. Their style of therapy is not a cure, but they also admit that there’s no reason why great things cannot occur.
Project Walk recognizes the immense potential I have to overcome much of what paralysis has given me. Many therapists out there have a mental block concerning recovery because of what the medical establishment has ingrained within their minds. Spasms are bad and need to be gotten rid of. This is what the medical establishment believes and it is the worst possible thing a spinal cord injured person who wants to recover could do to themselves. Spasms are simply the body’s way of trying to make connections with the muscles and at Project Walk they use the spasms to reteach the body how to function properly. Therefore, when the trainer’s work on my legs and work with my arms, the spasms do not instantly shift their focus to the negative but they remain positive so that their eyes remain open and accepting. When this is done all the potential I have becomes clear. They feel the initiating movement of my legs, they sense the connection I have with my body, and they understand exactly where I am coming from when I explain to them the various things I feel and can do with my body. The stats are thrown out the window and hope is restored. The hope I speak of is not a bad thing. It’s not waiting around for better things to occur. To hope is to believe in the possibilities and to live life with an open mind. With an open mind you can see clearly, both the present and the future, completely in the moment and creating a future of possibilities.
When I got home Sunday evening it was rather a strange feeling after living in a small hotel room for a week. The plane ride home did not go nearly as smooth as the one-out to San Diego. On the way to California I was able to upgrade to a first-class seat and have plenty of room to do my pressure reliefs and not feel cramped. All of the gate agents were prepared for my departures and arrivals and had all that was needed set and ready to go. On the way back to North Carolina, the gate agents were unprepared for the level of assistance I needed. Both on the way out and landing I delayed the flight. Several times I almost felt like breaking down and crying. Not sure why exactly. I think it was that my limited abilities were practically screaming in my face the entire time.
I have been anxious since being at home to get back into an aggressive therapy program. It’s obvious I will not be able to do this with my family so we are looking into hooking me up with a personal trainer. I have been pushing my manual chair quite a bit the past couple of days and feel a great deal stronger. I’m sitting up so much straighter and am even able to push without my chest strap on. I am not getting as dizzy as I used to and this may be credited to an acupuncture session I had last Friday afternoon. The acupuncturists at Project Walk is very confident that he can help restore bladder and bowl functions as well as blood pressure and temperature regulations. There is definitely something to it because almost instantly after he put about three needles into my scalp I felt completely relaxed.
Right now my family and I have a tentative plan. On September 11 I will be attending the Shepherd Center in Atlanta participating in their Beyond Therapy program. It’s hard for me to imagine anything surpassing Project Walk but I’m going to give it a try anyways. I’ll be there for one week and then most likely I’ll be attending Project Walk again in October and possibly staying for a couple months to get a better feel for what could happen over a longer period of time. Until I go to Atlanta I plan on getting a personal trainer, doing some sort of similar program to Project Walk, hopefully getting insurance to pay for a push-assist manual chair, and other than that I guess I will just be enjoying the rest of the summer. A lot of happenings coming up in the near future. I will keep you guys posted.