A repetition is an event

“Remember Ar-aaaash, make every repetition a separate event.”

These were the words, expressed in his slow, charming Alabama drawl, of one of my trainers a while back during a rather challenging exercise. He was a corky guy, eccentric yet affable, and I probably only worked with him a handful of times, but he had an eclectic knowledge of the body and liked to share his experience which was largely based on his years as a professional body builder.

He said that when it comes to many repetitive exercises, most people think only about completing the desired number of repetitions. Instead of that approach, he suggested that it’s not important whether you’re doing six, ten, or twenty repetitions but that you shift the focus from the completion of the entire set to an intense concentration on each repetition as its own end goal.

Clearly, the idea of “making each repetition count” wasn’t a new one at all, but the way he expressed it, his suggestion to think of each as an “event,” resonated with me.

The reason I’m thinking, and writing, about this now is that I’ve reached a point now in my rehabilitation where this advice is especially useful. In the last couple of months, much of what I’m working on has been extremely specific, focused and calculated exercises targeting small muscles and newly established and still weak neurological connections. These aren’t movements I can just complete unconsciously or with minimal attention. Now, I have to concentrate more than ever to turn on certain muscles, turn off other muscles that want to take over and dominate the movement and give every ounce of mental energy I have to try to strengthen a dormant or underutilized neurological connection.

After all this time, it’s still really hard for me to describe what it feels like to deal with a damaged neurological system.

It’s not like anything I ever experienced before my accident. It’s nothing like being on a long run or bike ride and battling complete exhaustion to fight through to the end. It’s not like being in a weight room and challenging a previous feat by adding a heavier weight, gritting your teeth and muscling through the movement. Nor is it like getting into a challenging yoga pose and trying to contort your body into a pretzel-shaped position.

I have to concentrate so much more on each specific aspect of my movement because I’m not only engaging the muscles that I do have control of, but I’m trying to reestablish those damaged connections. That’s why treating each repetition as a separate event is such great advice. It slows the entire process down, demands tremendous brainpower and forces me to prepare, complete and analyze each repetition with focus and determination. I also like that it can be applied to any repetitive movement or practice, not just physical exercise and it allows me not to take any practice for granted. Slowing down and treating each repetition as its own event can only benefit my continued recovery.

On cures

There have been some innovative and very high profile developments in the last few months when it comes to treatments for Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). Scientists, researchers, and advocates have demonstrated that creative approaches can lead to exciting and potentially groundbreaking results in treating this oh so complex injury, which no one seems to really, truly understand.

I’m often asked how excited I am about these breakthroughs and what they could mean to my own recovery and although my usual, quick answer is, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Lots of interesting things happening these days,” I figured I’d use this blog post to expand and clarify my true feelings.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll quickly outline and link to the three major developments that have come out just this year.

1) Epidural Stimulation – By implanting a small device over the protective coating of the spinal cord, and sending varying electrical currents to activate nerve circuits, four initial participants (all having suffered severe SCI’s) were able to achieve some motor control in their lower body as well as regain some other essential bodily functions.

2) Olfactory Stem Cell Implants – Scientists in Poland and the UK removed a man’s olfactory ensheathing cells (specialist cells from his nose that form part of the sense of smell), grew them and then injected them into his spinal cord to repair the damaged nerve fibers. Six months after surgery and with hundreds of hours of exercise and therapy, he slowly regained the ability to walk with braces.

3) Proteoglycan Drug – A neuroscience professor in the Ohio developed a drug that releases nerve fibers that have become trapped in scar tissue after a spinal cord injury, thus bridging the damaged cord and restoring some function. The study was conducted on rats but they’re quickly planning on trying it on humans.

Now that we’re all caught up and on the same page, I’ll explain my thoughts on these developments starting with the big positives and reasons I’m excited, but then also sharing   why I’m cautious and skeptical.

First of all, I’m thrilled that more people are paying enough attention to this injury to come up with long-term projects to address it. A scientist behind the second story I mentioned above was quoted as saying that this development was “more impressive than man walking on the moon”. I couldn’t agree more.

Secondly, the fact that these three developments all used different methods gets me excited. If they were all stories about stem cells or a medicine of some kind, I would be more skeptical of having all the eggs in one basket. Then, if something negative or ineffective came out about that one approach, the whole thing could come crumbling down. Three different methods means that the damage to the spinal cord is being treated with three individual approaches that each have their advantages and shortcomings, but they’re all leading to results, which is incredible.

On a similar note, the diversity of approaches means that there could be a potential to combine solutions in the future. Maybe with some people the stem cell treatment is less effective but the Proteoglycan drug picks up the slack. Maybe none of the treatments on their own lead to dramatic improvements, but in combination with each other (and whatever new technologies arise) a person can bounce back nearly 100%! How amazing would that be??!

My final reason for excitement is because this topic is, for the lack of a better term, sexy. Curing paralysis is a BIG DEAL. Getting people out of wheelchairs and back on their feet is truly earth-shattering. As someone who would give ANYTHING to regain function the way I had it before my injury, I can honestly say that no other medical breakthrough gets me as fired up as this. I’m obviously biased, but I embrace it.

Now for my reasons for caution:

The time frame for any of these treatments to reach the masses is loooong. The first study was conducted on four people. The second, on one. The third was on rats. I know technology moves at a frighteningly and often surprisingly fast pace these days, but even by the most optimistic estimates, these treatments are a few years away from being available to the millions of people worldwide who would benefit from them.

The financial costs, both for developing these treatments and for receiving them in the future, are huge. As I mentioned above, curing paralysis is truly groundbreaking news, but unfortunately, there hasn’t been nearly enough investment in finding ways to do this. The reality is that SCI doesn’t affect as many people as cancer or diabetes or AIDS and while I wish I could say that it’s not a numbers game, everything I’ve read proves that it absolutely is a numbers game. When the Christopher Reeve Center (with millions of dollars of its own, which has been the dominant driving force in treating SCI) has to launch a big PR campaign (see the epidural stimulation link above) to raise funds in order to continue research, it shows just how underfunded and under-recognized treating SCI is.

On top of that, we have to assume that at least initially, any potential cure will likely have a high financial cost to the user, which will automatically limit the ubiquity of the treatment. At least in the US, where medical insurance is always trying to find ways NOT to pay for anything, I’m not hopeful that insurance companies would be on the cutting edge of promoting and paying for a splashy yet expensive cure, even for an issue as sexy and exciting as this one.

I’m not trying to be a Debbie downer about all of this, I truly am thrilled to see what the future holds, but I’m a pragmatist and realist at heart. The future is very exciting, but for someone like me, who suffers through day after day of frustration at not a fully functional body, I don’t have tons of patience to just look forward to the future. I want to do something now. I don’t plan on sitting around and waiting for someone else to solve my problem and I’m way too Type A and motivated to stand by and accept complacency or the status quo. For that reason, none of these developments changes a thing in my day to day routine. I’m still going to work as hard as I have been to recover through my own hard work and will.

The one thing that all of these scientific developments prove to me more than anything else, is that the existing paradigm and approach for treating SCI is outdated and just plain wrong. These ideas show that the antiquated yet predominant way of thinking, of taking away hope from someone, of telling them they’ll “never do this or that again” has to change. It was only a few years ago when no one in the medical community believed in neuroplasticity, or the ability for the brain or nervous system to repair or change itself. Now people are changing their minds faster than ever and accepting that as arrogant and all-knowing as we human beings think we are, we don’t always know the answers. That way we remain open to solutions as they come, and I’m fully confident that in treating SCI, the solutions will indeed come…

Drip drip drip

On a recent warm and sunny Indian Summer day, I was sitting outside when I noticed a dripping on my shoulder. There was no way it was coming from the cloudless sky above so it quickly became apparent that the sweat was dripping off my head, naturally moisturizing my neck and shoulder.

Early on after my injury, I wrote a post about the very first beads of sweat I experienced and how significant that had been so with this recent development, I figure it’s time to reexamine this vastly under appreciated bodily system.

One of the many, and I mean MANY, secondary complications of a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is the deficiency in body temperature regulation. Simply put, the nerves in the spinal cord that control perspiration to various parts of the body are damaged thus leading to a decrease or inability to perspire. Similarly, when a person with a SCI gets too cold, it may be very time consuming and challenging for them to warm back up. The comfortable range of temperature for someone with a SCI is a lot more limited than it used to be. As you could imagine, this can lead to many challenging situations and unanticipated planning.

In the 18 months since I wrote that last post, my ability to handle more extreme weather has dramatically improved. I remember my feet used to turn to ice blocks at night, even in warm settings, because of the lack of circulation. Sitting in the sun for more than a few minutes was just asking for hours of suffering, as my bone dry skin wouldn’t naturally cool down the rest of my body.

I can’t say that I’m anywhere near where I’d like to be but the sweating and the temperature regulation as a whole has improved dramatically. Strangely enough (or not so strange if you know a bit about the left-right imbalance that comes with SCI, stroke, and other neurological injuries), I sweat much more out of the right side of my body than my left. I no longer have to rely on a physically intense workout to get a decent sweat. If the weather is warm enough, the moisture will come out.

I have to credit swimming as one of the contributing factors to this. Getting in a pool a couple times a week and literally forcing my body to deal with a dramatic change in external temperature, only to transition again after getting out and showering, has made me more adept at regulating my body temperature. I haven’t yet been anywhere too cold so I don’t know if I feel as confident with that, but I’m sure I’ll discover that soon.

So the next time you sweat, don’t take it for granted. That extra layer of perspiration and body odor is what’s keeping your body functioning at its peak.

Two years since, and still moving forward

Yesterday, July 8th, marked two years since my Spinal Cord Injury, since everything that I knew about the world, about myself, about my body, and my life was turned upside down in an instant and launched me on this whirlwind of a journey that is recovery.

I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to post about this strange date as its relevance is quite insignificant to me now. I remember last year, as my one year anniversary approached, I was stressed out and anxious (read my posting here if you’d like). Because the traditional thinking in our medical system says that most or all of recovery from SCI will occur in the first year or, if you’re lucky, in two, it was disheartening to think about the magnitude of that date and all that it implied. Oh how so much has changed…

Shortly after that day, I stopped counting the months since my accident. The eighth of the month, which had always been so present in my day-to-day consciousness especially as the calendar changed and a new month would arrive, became irrelevant. For the last many months, I actually completely forgot about the eighth of the month as I realized how unimportant it was. I told myself from the beginning that I was going to engage on the path to full recovery and that I would give everything I had to achieve my goals. Therefore, why should an antiquated way of thinking – an outdated medical approach that has been proven wrong repeatedly by those around me, one that quells and limits the spirit of recovery instead of encouraging it to flourish – why should that define my recovery? It shouldn’t, and it won’t.

I fully believe, as I have since the day I was injured, that with perseverance, diligence, unwavering commitment and by keeping my dream alive within me, that I can and will get back on my feet, no matter how long it takes. Also, I can’t overlook that an exceptional amount of my healing and breakthroughs have occurred only in the last few months! Maybe my spinal cord and my body did need a longer period of time to process and accept that initial trauma, but what started as the weakest me that me has ever known, has transformed into a period of continuous recovery and accomplishments.
Although it has been two very hard years, more trying, devastating, arduous, and insurmountably difficult than most anyone can imagine, I have learned tremendously during this time. I have challenged myself to an extreme I could never imagine and I have witnessed how much love surrounds me on this fight of mine. For that, I’m grateful. For the opportunity to continue on the path to realize my dream of walking and running again, I am hopeful and I continue to fight.
So thank you two year anniversary, thank you meaningless calendar date, thank you for reminding me that the human potential is not defined by 12 month cycles or doctors’ prognoses. If the spirit to heal is present, then the healing will persist. And further forward I push, looking forward to the next breakthrough and the next stage of recovery.

Bridging to the future

There is one exercise that has been consistent with every, single practitioner that I’ve worked with since my accident, and that’s bridging. If you don’t know what it means, you’re not alone, as it’s common in yoga and some other practices but not your every day gym workout fodder like pushups, situps, lunges, etc.

Bridging involves lying flat on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground, then lifting up your pelvis and torso so that you have more or less a straight line from the tops of your knees down to your shoulders. (Ok if my description was no good, feel free to jump to the video at the end of the post and come back to keep reading….). It’s not a massively complicated movement, but in its simplicity lies its importance.

I started trying to bridge shortly after my accident but I needed a lot of help. Whoever was with me had to hold my knees in a bent position, apply enough pressure to my feet to keep them from sliding, then literally left my entire torso for me (usually using straps of some kind) while I tried to visualize the movement. I would try and try and try, I would dig my elbows into the ground and attempt with all my limited might to somehow get my core up into the air and hold it there. I would think back to all the yoga classes I had gone to, in which bridging was a relatively painless task, and I would try to summon my spirit. But without any motor control of my abs, hips or legs, and with my knees flopping around from side to side, it felt like my torso weighed a thousand pounds and that lifting that mess of organs, bones and muscles would slight me forever.

Fast forward to a few days ago, following up on the work I did in Maui where I was finally able to start using my glutes and hamstrings and better engaging my back and abs, and here’s what happened:

 

I was thrilled. Especially since the therapist is giving me minimal assistance and just helping me with my knees a bit. She even lets go of me completely once I hold my pelvis up in the bridge.

There are few exercises that are so consistently emphasized by every practitioner in SCI recovery so I recognize the importance of this accomplishment. One of my therapists told me that in his experience, everyone who he knew who had recovered the ability to walk could bridge; that it was essential to the necessary movements of walking.

For me it’s validating to know that after literally thousands and thousands of struggled repetitions over the span of almost two years, I was finally able to unquestionably accomplish this movement which had seemed near impossible for so long. It is just a small step, and it’s not perfect yet, but it’s one less thing on my giant recovery to do list.

Major Progress in Maui

As I’m wrapping up my time in Maui, I want to share a quick update on the incredible progress I’ve made through my work with Alejandra. This is going to be short and sweet as I’m going to let the videos do most of the talking.

We spent a good chunk of time everyday working on a specific exercise that was meant to target my glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles, areas of my lower body that I had very little connection to prior to my trip to Maui. In addition to the variety of other exercises and movements that have all been crucial to the development of these muscles, this exercise was consistent as Alejandra felt that it was necessary for my ability to establish new cerebral mappings and create mental connections to the back side of my lower body.

We started like this, with me standing on the Core Align, a machine with wooden, ladder-like beams in front of me, foot plates that slide back and forth, and with Alejandra crouching in front of me, bracing my hips and pelvis in place, and manually moving one of my legs using her hands while I held on for dear life:

About 10 days later, we had moved on to me bracing myself solo against the Core Align, maintaining pelvis control on my own, and extending my leg back on my own! I could only kick back in a short burst, and let the foot plate pull my leg back into place. This lasted for 2-3 minutes per leg before I got fatigued:

Today, only a week since the last breakthrough, I was kicking my leg back like before, only this time, I was able to control the leg against the resistance of the foot plate and slowly bring my leg forward to resting position. No loud slamming of the foot plate, no short bursts, but more leg control both extending back and coming forward. Although one leg was certainly stronger than the other, I was able to do this for 15 minutes per leg, which means a HUGE increase in endurance.

It’s been so satisfying for me to see the progress so clearly and so quickly as it’s a true testament to the value of the work I’ve been doing. I’m just sad for it to end, but already looking forward to the next time I can come back.