Aquaman

Swimming never came naturally to me. Aside from summer camp and pool parties as a child, I spent very little time in the water and always preferred the comraderie and dynamics of playing team sports instead of jumping into a lane and competing individually. When I forced myself to start swimming in my late twenties in order to train for triathlons, it was a sad sight. Although my fitness in running and biking was strong, I could barely last a few minutes in the pool before I was gasping for air. The first few times I begrudgingly got into the olympic sized pool at my graduate school gym, I had to embarrassingly stop and rest after each 25 meter length. 

Almost a year after my injury, I got back into a swimming pool for the first time since those days of triathlon training and I immediately felt comfortable and happy. Although I was in a tiny therapy pool, about twice the size of a hot tub, heated to 93 degrees (most people with Spinal Cord Injuries cannot effectively regulate body temperature so a normal pool is usually too cold), and with two therapists in the water with me, I felt more free than I had at any moment since waking up in a hospital bed in the ICU. 

I didn’t just like the feeling of being weightless and uninhibited by gravity, I adored it. I craved it. And I wanted more. 

Soon after that, I decided that the water therapy with the PT’s was too restrictive and I didn’t want to be confined to a small pool and strict 50 minute time limits. I found a public pool near my house with a lift to get in and out of the water, and I was off. Brita, who had grown up swimming her whole life, was thrilled to be back in the water consistently and we were both overjoyed at the opportunity to share an activity together that could replace the hikes and bike rides we would inevitably be doing otherwise. 

In the beginning, I had to swim in place, on my back, with Brita holding my ankles. Five to ten minutes was more than enough. Thanks to a friend’s suggestion, I bought a snorkel and tried to swim face down but I was too weak to even get my arms out of the water and take a stroke, yet I tried anyways. As I’ve explained here on my blog so many times before, physical progress with anything after a Spinal Cord Injury is painfully slow and so much more tedious and frustrating than able-bodied exercise or training, but I kept at it. Not only because I felt like it was an attainable goal to work towards, but because I was addicted to being in the water, of taking the pressure off my butt, of escaping the hideous reality of sitting in a chair so damn much. 

One day this past December, almost a year and a half after I first got into a pool, I threw off the snorkel and decided that come hell or highwater, I was going to force myself to get my head out of the water, breathe normally and swim freestyle. Serendipitously enough, only two days later, I stumbled upon an open water swim race in June and immediately knew my destiny. Without hesitation, I signed up for the longest option: 2.4 miles, the same distance of an Ironman triathlon. 

This past weekend, with a bit of apprehension but a full head of steam, I got in the lake and completed the swim in just under two hours, a full thirty minutes faster than I was expecting. 
  

While relearning how to walk remains my ultimate goal and primary focus in everything I do, completing this swim has taught me the importance of setting and reaching objectives of varying difficulty. I’ve learned that achieving this goal of swimming a distance that I never expected possible allows me to be even stronger and more determined as I remain focused on my longer, more difficult goal to get back on my feet.

Shortly after my swim, a friend who heard about it congratulated me and said, “hey you’re Aquaman!” I nodded in agreement, knowing that being Aquaman has renewed my faith that no matter how long it takes, I will soon be “Walking Man” again. 

Bow down to the all mighty psoas

Let’s do an exercise. Identify the following muscles in your body, move them, think about how they feel when they’re functioning well compared to the feeling when they’re tight, impaired or injured. Ready? Here we go.

Bicep. No brainer. Do your best body builder pose. Got it?

Calf. Raise up on your toes and feel it contract. Put on some high heels. Maybe it bulges out of the back of your leg, maybe not. Ok, moving on.

Abs. Where’s that six pack? The goal of many a workout. Situps. Lots and lots of situps.

Ok ready for the next one?

Psoas. 

Huh?? What is it? How do you even say that?

Psoas. C’mon, flex it. Now relax it. Stretch it.

But how do you feel it? What does it do? And seriously, how do you pronounce that?

Psoas muscle

Psoas muscle

For many of us, the psoas is a mystery muscle. Most people (yoga addicts, pilates gurus, and fitness fiends aside) have no idea what it is or what it does. From what I’ve learned, it’s only been in the last couple of decades that it’s even reached modest levels of significance.

For me, the connection to my psoas was badly damaged during my injury. Although I’ve regained decent connections to my glutes, quads and hamstrings, and gradually but consistently strengthened my abdominals and core muscles, my ability to use my psoas has eluded me.

Why does this matter? How important can the psoas be?

Extremely important, it turns out.

The psoas is the only muscle that connects the spine to the lower body. It originates in the low back, branching out from the 12th thoracic and all five lumbar vertebrae, sloping down underneath all of the abdominal core muscles, through the pelvis and attaching to the top of the thigh bone. It’s responsible for many things including but not limited to trunk stability, low back flexibility, picking up your leg to take a step, supporting organ function and even breathing. Functionally, one of the reasons we have evolved to standing from being on all fours is the emergence and importance of the psoas.

I’ve known for some time now that strengthening my connection to my psoas is maybe the most essential next step in my recovery, since with even moderate engagement, I would be able to lift my leg and swing it through to take a step.

What I didn’t realize however, was just how significant this muscle is not only functionally and physically but emotionally. As one of the deepest muscles in the body, and as a literal bridge from the trunk and abdomen to the legs and lower body, its importance can’t be understated. Additionally, the psoas is connected (via fascia and connective tissue) to the diaphragm, which is responsible for breathing.

So a quick summary: we’re talking about a single muscle that’s largely involved in walking, keeping your entire trunk and lower spine stable, keeping you alive (by allowing you to breathe), and helping your organs work effectively.

It should come as no surprise then that as soon as I started aggressively targeting and working this muscle in the last week, all kinds of things got stirred up within me. Emotions were whirling at me from nowhere, deep fears were conjured up, and everything within me felt kinda topsy turvy.

Although I had previously heard of the emotional importance of the psoas in particular and the core as a whole (some spiritual practices believe that your soul resides deep in your belly), I honestly didn’t really buy it. Now I admit I was wrong and fully succumb to the power and influence of the psoas.

So be nice to your psoas, stretch it and pay attention to it, cause chances are you have no idea how important it is.

Stand up and deliver

I’d like to share an incredible announcement with all of you. This past weekend, on the shores of beautiful Lake Tahoe, with the mountains that I grew up visiting through all my childhood in the background, and on a gorgeous late summer afternoon, I stood up on my own in a walker, and asked my amazing girlfriend Brita to marry me.

After realizing that I wasn’t joking, she shook aside the surprise and disbelief, stood next to me, eye to eye (a position we have only recently been able to enjoy) and said YES.

As all of you know, the accident that I suffered two years ago tragically changed my life and forced me to enter a world I had never expected. My career, my physical abilities, my independence and everything I had known until then were thrown into limbo with no explanation or resolution that any of it could come back to me or improve in any way possible. However, my ability to love, be loved and recognize the qualities of a truly one of a kind person were not compromised.

Brita and I (being introduced on an old-school blind date) had only met four months before my Spinal Cord Injury, which occurred while she was abroad finishing her graduate studies. When she came back to the US and saw me in the hospital, I immediately told her that I gave her full approval to move on from me, that this situation was going to be so incredibly arduous and challenging (and I didn’t even know the half of it….) that I had zero expectation or resentment towards her if she chose to let our relationship go. She had a green light….and she didn’t take it. She shook her head and emphatically and unhesitatingly told me that she wasn’t going anywhere, that she was in it for the long haul.

Throughout this time, she has been the biggest source of support for me, constantly listening to my rants and frustrations, praising my accomplishments and unequivocally maintaining the faith that I will get back on my feet, even when I question my own faith and hope. I truly believe that because of this experience, we have gotten to know each other on an entirely different level, and that’s why I had no hesitation that I wanted her to be my partner for life.

I had held a secret for the last few months that I shared with no one. I told myself that once I could stand, I would propose to this beautiful woman. Well the secret is out. It means so much to me to be able to have done this standing up, at eye level, and with the confidence that the hard work I’ve put in the last two years has paid off.

I’ll stop there as I could go on forever, but a big thanks to all of you who have supported me through this time. I’m honored to share this with you. And a huge thank you to everyone who helped me plan this special day and for our friends who were there that day, hiding in the trees and taking photos from afar and making this a truly memorable moment.

Much love and gratitude

Standing proposal

 

Olympic Observations

Seven one-hundredths of a second. That’s what separated the gold and silver medal finishers in the Women’s Giant Slalom downhill skiing event in the Sochi Olympics last week. As I was watching, I was struck by the tiny margins of difference that would determine the order of finishers in this event.  To put it another way, the top 9 finishers in the event completed the course within 1.77 seconds of each other! So less than 2 seconds decided the best in the world from the mediocre skiers.

This got me thinking of the athletes and what they do in the three years and 50ish weeks when they’re not in the olympics. Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of training involved. For some of the more popular sports, the athletes may have the luxury of training nearly full-time while for some of the other olympic sports (i.e. curling, luge), I learned that most of the athletes have full-time jobs and careers and train for their sport on the side. Either way, the amount of hours and time that each of these people puts into practice and training is admirable and remarkable.

So going back to the ski race, I couldn’t help but feel astounded that for these skiers, who are the absolute best in the world, four years of intense and daily training and thousands upon thousands of repetitions of the same movements all lead to a day where their fates are decided in mere milliseconds.

This got me thinking about my own regimen and my own olympics (of sorts) that I’m training for. Despite my lifelong athleticism and passion for an active lifestyle, I know that before my accident, it was hard for me to fathom the life of an olympic athlete, spending THAT many hours of everyday training for an event in which you may not even be selected to compete. How could you justify waking up early, staying up late, sacrificing sleep and time for other aspects of life to train for an activity while knowing that you MAY have a chance to possibly go up against the best in the world and then and only then, maybe you will be seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough to win gold??!

Since the day I got out of surgery to repair my badly broken neck, since the day when I knew that my body was damaged yet my spirit was more resilient than ever, and since I knew that the road back to my feet would be a long and arduous one, I decided that I would do everything in my power and spend as many hours a day and as many days as necessary working towards my goal.

In this regard, I share something with those olympic athletes. Our commitments to our respective goals are unquestionably similar – I would even argue that I want to walk more than any athlete wants to win gold but I guess that’s gonna be hard to prove.

And so I understand now why someone would train so much for so long despite such slim chances of reaching their goals and winning the race, and being better than everyone else out there. If you want it badly enough, then no amount of practice or training or repetitions will be too daunting to prevent you from getting there, just seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough.

The SCI Survivor Survey

What does it mean to survive a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)? What systems are in place to assist and support SCI survivors days, months and even years after their injuries? How do SCI survivors deal with the many life-changing challenges they face following this injury? What are those challenges and, most importantly, what can be done to address them in order to help and improve the lives of those of us who have dealt with this injury?

All of these, and many more, are the questions that the SCI Survivor Survey seeks to explore.

A little background: After my own frustrating experience with the availability (or lack thereof) of resources, support systems and options for recovery in the initial weeks and months following my accident, I decided that at some point in the future, I would want to do something to help other SCI survivors. When I heard the experiences of others, I was simultaneously horrified – I couldn’t believe how consistently various people in the medical system were discouraging and reluctant to provide hope to these people and their families – and relieved – because I learned that I wasn’t the only one out there facing these frustrations and challenges.

Recently, a couple friends and I started discussing what the biggest challenges are for SCI survivors and brainstorming the most helpful solutions. They knew my story – after all, they had been there to support me from the beginning – and I had a sense of what those challenges were based on the anecdotes I’d heard from others. But we decided that before we could explore the idea further, and in order to have a more accurate understanding of the most beneficial potential solutions, we wanted to hear from more SCI survivors. Thus, the SCI Survivor Survey was born.

Our goal now is to get as many responses as possible from anyone who has suffered a Spinal Cord Injury. The survey is purely informational and completely anonymous. All questions are optional and the responses we get will only be used to shape the direction of our efforts and guide our primary objective: to help as many SCI survivors as we can.

So in case I haven’t made it clear yet, I’m asking for your help! If you are an SCI survivor, please fill it out yourself and share it with as many other SCI survivors as you know. Otherwise, please forward, email, link, send, snail mail, tweet, carrier pigeon, make smoke signals, use morse code, talk through tin cans, and share the following link with someone has dealt with SCI. I’m grateful in advance for your help and promise to keep you updated on the progress of our efforts.

SURVEY LINK: http://bit.ly/1hf7TcC

Reflecting on my CORE Center experience

“Sit tall, stand tall, walk tall.” Those were the words of Taylor Isaacs, the kinesiology professor/exercise therapist/all around SCI and body movement master who has helped a number of people achieve significant recovery from devastating injuries. I was honored to spend a few days last week at CORE Center working and learning from someone who takes a different approach to recovery than the traditional methods I’ve become accustomed to. It’s not easy to sum up Taylor’s approach but if I had to start with one word, it would be holistic.

Upon arriving to Southern California and creating an instantaneous bond with Taylor, Aaron Baker, Laquita and the CORE Center family (see my last post for a background of these amazing people), Taylor asked me questions. LOTS of questions. He wanted to know every detail about my accident, every detail of my regimen since then, my diet, my sleep patterns, my energy levels, my specific progress and how I had measured it, my psychological state, and as I conjured up the answers to the many questions, he took meticulous notes and responded in his easing South African accent, “brilliant, excellent, brilliant.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Taylor but within seconds of meeting him, I knew I could trust him, and that I would. After all, this guy was an expert among experts about how the body moves and had spent years applying his previous knowledge and varied experience with everyone from high level athletes to everyday people to those of us suffering from injuries like SCI. What I saw in Taylor and what made me so excited to work with him was an attitude of possibility and capabilityThese are words not commonly spoken to someone who has suffered a SCI; after all, we’re always being reminded of our disability and told to adapt to the circumstances, instead of trying to tackle the circumstances head on and bring about change.

The time I spent with Taylor was incredibly fruitful. After a couple days of meticulously testing different muscles and assessing my current condition, I was a bit surprised that the exercise regimen he sent me home with didn’t involve standing or leg exercises or weights or really anything complicated. It was a 20 minute daily regimen that he called Postural Reprogramming, meant to correct my posture, strengthen my abdominal and back muscles and get me sitting taller, which would lead to standing and walking taller.

Of course there are no guarantees from any therapist or practitioner and Taylor did not prognosticate anything. But what I learned from his approach was to look at the body as a whole, and understand that before I could take a step or stand up on my own, I would need to get my body into the right position for it to do what it wants to do: to move as efficiently as possible or put another way, to use the least amount of effort and energy to perform a movement. According to Taylor, “by doing this, we’re going to take those blocked neural pathways, we’re going to flood them with neural energy and turn them into neural superhighways!”

I’m including a couple of quick videos that are examples of the simple, yet challenging movements that are a part of my Postural Reprogramming regimen:

 

As I wrote about in my last post, the other main reason I was excited for this trip was to meet Aaron Baker, a true hero in my eyes and someone who consistently inspires me. I felt a kinship with Aaron the moment I met him. Of course, he has been through this injury and achieved outstanding recovery but it went beyond that. Through many hours of conversation, we were able to share our perspectives on our injuries, our lives and the world as a whole. Aaron’s mindfulness, focus and intention emanated from him and inspired me further. It was clear to me that despite his astounding recovery, this injury was still a huge part of him, and it always would be, but he had found peace, something I still have trouble doing. It was an honor to share this time with these amazing people and I’m already looking forward to my next visit to CORE Center. Until then, I’ll be reprogramming my posture…

CORE Family

Sacred places and the case against being a couch potato

Sometimes I wonder why this injury had to happen to me, why not some couch potato who could just as easily sit on a sofa (or now, a wheelchair), and spend hours watching TV or playing video games, and having little to no concern about the weather outside or their natural surroundings. My situation would probably be easier if I were like this. Being a sedentary, physically unmotivated person who wanted nothing more than to be passively entertained would translate quite well to the common prognosis of life post-Spinal Cord Injury: sit on your ass, get around in a wheelchair, abandon hope of regaining who you were prior to injury, gain weight, and do your best to deal with your “new” life. But as I’ve stated many times, I am the furthest thing from this type of person and so I have to accept that while the path of NOT being a couch potato may be extraordinarily harder for my recovery (I would think a couch potato may not even bother to try to recover), the potential reward of rediscovering any of the active things that I used to do is monumental and motivating to me to continue my fight.

I believe we all have places that are sacred to us, and many of my sacred places are  associated with nature, the outdoors and the absolute sense of serenity, joy and fulfillment I get from visiting these places again and again. Over the last two weekends I had the pleasure of going to two of my sacred places: Yosemite National Park and the coastal areas of Marin County, north of San Francisco. On both occasions, generous friends opened up their homes and I was fortunate enough to share these experiences with incredible friends who treated me as I always had been, and recognized and respected how important these places were to me.

My earliest memories of Yosemite are as a child, grumblingly pitching a tent during a pouring thunderstorm, hiking underneath craggy peaks and swimming in its cold yet refreshing rivers, streams and lakes. I have explored many different corners of the park, which in more recent years has come in the form of finding solace from the large crowds by backpacking through its less-traveled trails and finding its more hidden treasures. I was nervous about coming back to this sacred place without the ability to hike and move as I used to. Honestly, I had avoided a trip to Yosemite since my accident specifically because I didn’t want my memories and nostalgia to overwhelm and upset me.

By contrast, I had spent a bit of time in the gorgeous coastal areas of Marin County as a teenager, but my deep appreciation for this sacred place developed in the last few years through my frequent road bike rides through this area. Living in San Francisco meant that I would often hop on my bike, cross the majestic Golden Gate Bridge and escape from the city to surround myself with coastal redwoods, rocky beaches and winding hilltop roads.

To be honest, it was excruciating at times to be in these sacred places in a wheelchair, unable to stand up or walk or go anywhere with uneven terrain. It pained me to conjure cherished memories of past experiences and to wonder if and when I would ever do those things again on my feet. I would be lying if I didn’t admit this, but to my surprise, I discovered that despite my physical limitations, it was fantastic to be in these places again. Those ethereal granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley haven’t changed much in hundreds of thousands of years, and there’s no reason for me not to continue to appreciate their beauty now. Sitting in the sun with friends, eating freshly shucked oysters and enjoying a beautiful afternoon was a bit more tedious because I was stuck in a wheelchair, but it wasn’t enough to take away from savoring that moment. I even figured out a way to lean my knees against a picnic table and stand up with the help of a couple friends.

The mixture of emotions that comes with going back to my sacred places, albeit in a very different physical state, is a difficult challenge, but at least now I’ve reopened the door to enjoying them and can use fresher memories of these places to fuel my continued recovery.

Getting towed by two black labs

Getting towed by two black labs

Standing up!

Standing up!