Family Corner

Working Out & Staying Healthy

Upon returning home from Shepherd Center and in-patient rehab, Darren developed a routine of out-patient therapy that dominated the daily schedule. After a few months of that, however, it was up to us to figure out the best way for Darren to make progress.

Never buying into the philosophy of “get used to living your life in a wheelchair,” Darren (an athlete his whole life) sought other options. His questions revolved around “what else can I do?” and “how can I do it?” Our first attempt – a very successful one – was to find a personal trainer to come and work out with Darren at home. With a little assistance from me, we found Eric and a long term relationship was born. Not having experience with anyone who had a spinal cord injury, Eric was willing to learn and give it a shot. Sometimes interest and commitment are more important than experience, and this proved that theory true. From exercises in his bedroom on a platform mat, using a doorway for standing, a bike in the living room, and our pool, Eric tried various activities with Darren and helped him get stronger.

Darren was also researching options on the internet and found Project Walk in California. After discussions with Eric and a neuromuscular massage therapist Darren was working with, the decision was made to visit Project Walk for a week. Since Darren was also starting his freshmen college courses at this time, timing was important, but it all came together. Darren and I spent one week at Project Walk, filming and learning as much as possible. We returned home with new found knowledge, and Darren was able to explain things to Eric and design a home program for himself. That was in September, and the goal was to return to Project Walk for an entire month in January. Fortunately, Ramapo College’s schedule allowed an entire month off that particular year.

Darren & I traveled to California in January 2006 and pieces started falling into place. Another trip that summer, which included Eric, had us thinking about opening our own place in New Jersey. (A shout-out to our friends, Linda and Al Wilson, who put this crazy idea into my head in the first place! I never thought it would be possible.) After a total of 5 trips to Project Walk, our own center – Push to Walk – opened in January 2007. But I don’t want this topic to be about Push to Walk. I want it to be about what each person can do for him/herself to stay healthy. Darren was and is an athlete. He knew that practice, repetitions and hard work were the basics of learning new skills. Recovering from a spinal cord injury could be treated the same way.

Darren was ready to put in the hard work and concentrate on an exercise program. But he wanted to continue with college, so his time was split between the two. It is impossible to say now what he and we would have chosen if we knew then what we know now, but what he chose worked for him. If I have the opportunity to provide information to people with new spinal cord injuries, I encourage them to start early and continue as long as possible. But that often requires putting “life” on hold, and that is a decision each individual and family has to make for themselves.

In my 10 years of being part of the SCI community, I think it is a fair assessment to make that traditional therapy in the US only goes so far. It is, for the most part, a “compensatory” philosophy: you have (or will have) only X amount of function recovered. You can do other things to compensate for the losses, but recovery is not likely. That is the litany heard by many, believed by many, and is the traditional way of thinking. With the exception of a few physical therapists I know or have heard about and a few rehab centers who are more forward-thinking, this is the general consensus. It boils down to “go and live your life in a wheelchair.” People are questioning this more and more, and rightfully so. Possibilities for strengthening, regaining movement and function DO exist. You need to be vigilant in your approach, and seek out programs and professionals who can help you reach your goals. Perhaps you need inspiration and motivation to even set your goals. Your peers can help you! Ask others for information, read forums like Care Cure and Apparalyzed, get involved in adaptive sports. You may not want to be friends with someone just because they are in a wheelchair or you both have the same injury, but if you meet others, you are certain to find some you do want to be friends with, or at least have people you can ask for help and support.

There are options out there but you have to be willing to find them and see what works for you. With varying levels of function, what may work for one person may not work for another. It may take some time, creativity and trial & error to find what’s right for you, but I hope you are successful in your quest. Staying healthy, both physically and mentally, will in the long run be the best thing you can do for yourself!