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.

Never satisfied

I’m never satisfied. It’s as simple as that, specifically in regards to my recovery.

As I write that, and I imagine as you may read it at first glance, it may seem extreme. In fact, many friends, family and readers of this blog have told me that I need to be better about acknowledging and appreciating the accomplishments that I make. As a result, I have put a lot of effort into recognizing my milestones and achievements, as small or seemingly insignificant as they may be. While this continues to be a huge challenge for me, I try to improve upon it everyday, as I know that my recovery is a long process and it’s impossible to reach the light at the end of the tunnel without appreciating those moments in between. All of that said, there’s something I really love about not being satisfied and I feel compelled to acknowledge the benefits of this stubborn, hard-headed approach that I embody.

I would attribute a great deal of my improvements and physical gains to this inherent characteristic of mine. You see, I LOVE to push myself. I always have. So when I accomplish anything, it’s natural for me to think to myself, “Well, that was good, but what’s next? How do I get even better?” When it comes to accomplishments and achievements, I can’t help but think of a cheesy yet very salient quote from some old martial arts movie where the sensei warns the student not to get overconfident because, “there is always someone better than you.” (If you know what this movie is, feel free to educate me)

It’s the same reason why I can’t stand arrogance or conceit in people. Why tell the world you’re really good at something when you always have a chance of getting better?

Ok so I realize this last bit may be misleading so let me clarify. I’m not saying that recognizing one’s accomplishments automatically equals arrogance. And I don’t think that we should all just wallow in mediocrity and never celebrate positive things. (As I’ve written about many times, I almost unwaveringly tend to see the positive in everything). But what I am saying is that by leaning to the side of under-acknowledging and downplaying my achievements, and by never feeling fully satisfied, I avoid complacency and I maintain my intense motivation and commitment to my recovery.

As I continue on this wild journey, I maintain the promise I’ve made to many people to stop and appreciate those small victories but by adhering to my stubbornness, competitiveness and will, I’ll keep my laser focus and I’ll keep going strong, always looking for the next challenge to conquer.

Sharing the story of an inspiring friend

Video

I want to take a moment and give a shout out to a recent friend and his outstanding achievements after suffering a Spinal Cord Injury of his own. I was introduced to Grant Korgan just weeks after my accident while I was still in rehab at the hospital and I remember talking to him and instantly feeling better knowing that someone else out there could possibly understand what I was going through. “You have a new best friend bro, feel free to call me anytime you want” is what he told me. Grant suffered his accident almost three years ago and was given the same uninspiring prognoses from his doctors about his chances of recovery.

Despite the challenges he faced, he worked his way out of his wheelchair, became much stronger, started walking with canes, and became the first adaptive athlete to hand-ski to the South Pole in Antarctica. This effort was chronicled by a documentary film crew and Grant has also written an inspiring book about the first year of his life after his accident entitled, “Two Feet Back.” I read his book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning of a person who has approached his recovery with unwavering optimism and positivity.

I want to dedicate this post to sharing Grant’s talk at a recent TEDx event. Check out his video and if you only have a few minutes, feel free to skip to 16:08 and watch and listen to the song about his story and recovery. I am continuously inspired by him and discover so many similarities to my own recovery. Madluv to you Grant

TEDx Grant Korgan: The Goosebumps of Life

A six-month reflection

It has now been exactly six months since I suffered my Spinal Cord Injury. Six months in which everything I knew and did in my life dramatically changed, six months in which an outstanding community from near and far came to support me consistently and with arms wide open. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this moment.

On the one hand it feels like an absolute eternity that I’ve had to live with a severe disability, unable to walk, unable to work, unable to do all the activities that contributed greatly to my mental and physical well-being, and battling everyday with the uncertainties of my injury. No one tells me if and when I will recover or how much. Doctors, physical therapists and medical practitioners seem so obsessed with liability, lawsuits and the fear of giving me false hope that they barely show excitement at my accomplishments. Of course for me, any major development (i.e. a wiggling toe) is a tiny step closer to my ultimate goal of full recovery, but all I hear from the medical establishment is to accept the current situation and “become as independent as possible”. They don’t push me to challenge my limits or boundaries, they don’t encourage me to take part in other therapies and treatments, they don’t encourage me to keep hope alive; I’ve done all this through my own will and volition. It definitely feels like I’m a lone fish swimming upstream against a relentless current that says to accept things the way they are.

On the other hand, in some ways it does feel like time has passed rather quickly. I’ve found a rhythm and schedule that work for me. No less than six days a week, I’m driving to different parts of the Bay Area to access the therapies and treatments that have contributed so much to my improvement thus far, and filled in the enormous hole that my medical insurance (and their approach) has left for me. I’m shocked by how quickly summer changed to fall and now to winter and the new year. I’m astonished that I’ve already been through so many mornings having woken up and been angry at not being able to jump out of bed and onto my feet. Or how many evenings I’ve endured with a sore butt from sitting in a chair all day.

I have purposely set my goals high, because I know that compromising how I set my goals compromises my potential accomplishments. So I will stick with my goal from the beginning, that on my birthday this August (over 13 months after my accident), I will be on my feet and walking. Everyday can and does often feel like a struggle, but if I’ve made it six months already and improved so much, I can only hope to exceed my expectations for the next six months.

Wiggle wiggle pinky toe!

I’m laying in bed, slowly waking up and adjusting my eyes to the winter sunshine as I glance out the window, when I decide to do some visualization exercises with my legs and feet. I go through the usual exercises that I’ve been doing as frequently as possible in my free time: flex my feet, bend my knee, rotate my legs in and out. Since my accident, I don’t get any movement in my lower body when I do these exercises but I’ve stubbornly and consistently kept at it. The reason why everyone – from the nurses in the ICU to my spine surgeon to my acupuncturists – has emphasized the importance of visualization is the belief that there is enormous value in sending a signal from the brain to the lower body and by thinking and trying to move those limbs, one can repair the neural pathways and reestablish that damaged connection.

This time though, something feels different. I lift myself up to sitting with my legs straight ahead of me on the bed and I throw off the covers to get a better view. Something just feels different, like there’s movement and it’s not just a spasm or reflex (which I have frequently as well). I stare at my right foot and see that my pinky toe is slowly moving in and out. To make sure this isn’t a fluke, I stop and do nothing. Pinky toe doesn’t move. I try again and there it goes, immediately responding to the signal I’m sending. This can’t be right, it’s been months and months of having my legs and feet dangle lifelessly as I’ve dragged and lifted and bumped and dropped them from place to place in this strange new world of life post-Spinal Cord Injury.

I do it again, this time to confirm that what I thought I had been seeing could actually be real. “Wiggle little toe, wiggle”. Wiggle wiggle it says, as it dances back and forth, proving to me that for the first time in almost six months, I have regained motor control of a part of my lower body.

What a development for the new year, what a way to show me that 2013 really will be a special year, one in which I hope to achieve all of my recovery objectives and kick this damn injury’s ass! It’s only one pinky toe, on only one foot and it’s still a long ways to go I’m sure before I can move my legs around like I used to, but that pinky toe gave me so much hope for the future of my recovery. To go from feeling that moving any part of my lower body is the equivalent of moving a table with my mind, to then finally seeing a flicker of hope in a tiny little pinky toe is an indescribable moment. Now, I can move this toe 10,000 times if I have to until it leads to me being able to control my other toes and then my foot and then my ankle and then my legs… My fire of recovery has been fueled, my conviction has been confirmed and my dream to reach my ultimate goal has entered into the realm of reality.

Want proof? Here it is:

Why I shouldn’t be thankful and why I still am

On the eve of Thanksgiving, a day in which we’re meant to consider being thankful, it’s somewhat instinctive for me to think that there is very little for me to be thankful for right now. Why should I be thankful? I’ve suffered a horrific accident that has left me incapable of doing so many of the things I love. My life has been turned completely upside down at a time where I should be harnessing all the intellectual and creative potential I have in a professional way. I’m regrettably not getting on any planes or visiting any friends or family in a faraway place, because the logistics of long distance travel are too much to handle.

But as tempting as it is to get caught up in the negativity and think about why things suck so much right now (because honestly, many things really DO suck now), I’d rather think about the following list of just a few of the things I’m extremely thankful for despite my current condition.

Why I’m thankful:

  • I have improved every single day since my accident and will continue to do so in some way
  • My brain function has been unaffected by this accident. I have all the cognitive and mental capacities I’ve always had
  • I can still drink coffee
  • I am reminded everyday of the many people in my incredible community of friends and family and all they’re doing to help me
  • I couldn’t ask for a better family
  • My hands are strong enough to at least somewhat prepare and cook the turkey, and my intense exercise allows me to be hungry enough to eat all my Thanksgiving favorites
  • I can go outside and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air
  • My scars are pretty badass