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.

Oh the people you’ll meet…

For those of you Dr. Seuss fans, yes the title of this post is a play on the well-known story, “Oh the places you’ll go!” and it’s so relevant to all of the people I’d like to acknowledge in this post.

It’s easy to dwell in the negativity of all of the things I cannot do right now due to my injury. Every single day, I have to actively make an effort not to go down that path, not to get trapped by those “can’t” thoughts because all they bring me are negative emotions: resentment, envy, frustration, impatience, and distress. One thing that helps me through this process is appreciating all of the incredible people that have come into my life as a result of this injury.

In the last two years, despite dealing with the most vulnerable and trying circumstances, fighting so hard for every little accomplishment, I’ve been blessed to have met individuals who have impacted me positively and consistently raised my spirits. I’ve encountered genuine, passionate and optimistic people who have shown they are as committed to helping me achieve my goals as I am.

I have trainers and therapists who prove to me every week that they believe in my objectives and they’re willing to go out of their way to learn more about my injury and how to treat it. They illustrate their passion and excitement to me all the time and they go above and beyond their responsibilities in order to match my great expectations. They read books, watch videos, question their own habits and practices and try new things with me. They do it not because they should, not because they want to humor me or pity me, but because they genuinely care.

There are friends who volunteer their time, energy and professional expertise to help fill the holes of a medical system that has abandoned me. Friends who work full-time, yet sacrifice their Sunday mornings to show up and do core strengthening exercises in my living room. Friends who meet me every week for swim sessions, helping me get stronger and fitter in the pool in ways that I can’t do on land. Friends who donate their healing abilities to give me acupuncture treatment so that my sore and overused muscles can get a much needed respite from the rigors of everyday living. Friends who are willing to travel across an ocean with me so that I can have access to the best therapy I have found. Friends who donate their time to organize fundraising events so that I can continue doing therapy. Friends who encouraged me to start writing and sharing my story with the world. Friends who – before I could drive myself – would get up early and drive me to rehab, spending the entire day waiting for me and then drive me home.

Some of these people I’ve met since my accident, others I had known previously, but my friendships with them deepened. The common thread between all of these people is that my respect and admiration for all of them has hit stratospheric heights.

They’ve shown me that in an increasingly complex world, amidst a “reality-show” generation which popularizes and promotes tremendous levels of superficiality, banal cruelty, and obnoxious self-centeredness, there are people who rise above, who show up, who unwaveringly prove that there is still plenty of kindness, compassion and selflessness to be found.

You know who you are, and I’m grateful to you all.

Summertime Nostalgia

“So what do I need for backpacking this weekend? It’s going to be a shorter trip but I still need food, clothes, and supplies for three full days and nights… And next Saturday I’m going on a river float all day with friends, should be so much fun! Oh and I have to remember to borrow my roommate’s water filter for the next camping trip coming up in a couple weeks. Don’t want to be stuck in the mountains without sipping the good stuff from the streams and rivers!”

These were the typical thoughts running through my head during the summer time a couple years ago. Having spent the previous numerous summers working in the travel industry and with little free time, I had come to appreciate having the freedom to explore the many outdoors opportunities that were at my footsteps in Northern California. Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, the giant Sequoia trees, Big Sur, the coastal redwoods, and many of the gorgeous peaks of the Sierra mountains were all less than a half day’s drive from my urban life in the middle of San Francisco. I had the unique opportunity to live in a dynamic and fast-moving city and yet have access to some of the most beautiful natural scenery around; a truly fortunate situation to be in and one for which I was continuous grateful.

Fast forward to now and some things haven’t changed. My friends are still going on those backpacking trips, they’re still hard at work seeking undiscovered lakes or less traveled trails to explore and planning fun adventures. The river floats are still happening as are the epic day long bike rides that customarily include a pastry and coffee jolt or a cold beer conclusion. The roaring campfires (and the stories and laughter that come with them) are still burning strong, and the miles and miles of the fun-filled drives crisscrossing the varied topography of the California that I love so dearly are still being driven, albeit in slightly nicer cars reflecting the improved career trajectories of my thirty-something social community.

The major difference, of course, is that I’m not there.

It’s like watching a movie you’ve seen a hundred times but with one of the major actors missing. It doesn’t feel right.

To say that I’m envious of my friends’ adventures is the understatement of the century. I would give anything to be tromping through the mountains with a backpack on my shoulders, laughing and chatting and admiring the grandeur of mother nature’s best offerings. And honestly, the one thing that may be harder than not being on those adventures, is hearing about them first-hand and masking my frustration and resentment with my attempts to conjure sincere excitement.

So what’s keeping me sane this summer? Pretty simple actually. My desire to reach my shorter-term goals of recovery, some of which are looming closer on the horizon, fuel me just as much as a summer adventure would. I know that the sense of accomplishment I would receive from standing up on my own or taking a few unassisted steps in a walker would fulfill me more than these adventures did in the past. I’ve worked so hard for so long that seeing the fruits of my labor would give me immense satisfaction. While my current summer adventure is a bit more lonely, and a lot less scenic than my former escapades, the rewards are, to say the least, tantalizing, validating and worthwhile.

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.

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.

Update from Maui

I’ve had the incredible opportunity to come back to Maui and work with Alejandra and her staff and share her amazing perspective and approach to my recovery. I’m a little over halfway through my time here and I must admit I’ve been pretty unplugged from everything and everyone, but I finally have the time, motivation and videos/photos to give a quick update.

As a quick reminder, Alejandra has created her own unique form of therapy she calls Neurokinetic Pilates which utilizes the concept of Neuroplasticity (the belief that the brain and nervous system can repair and rewire damaged connections as a result of injury, illness, etc.) and the understanding of the lines of fascia (the tissue that surrounds and connects all of our muscles) to perform exercises and movements that mostly use Pilates principles and equipment. (I wrote a couple of posts about my last experience with her from a few months ago, if you want to reference, the links are here and here).

This time around, it was right back to work immediately after arrival from the airport. Alejandra is incredibly focused, highly motivated, and does not like to waste one second of  our time which are qualities that I share and a few of the many reasons I like working with her so much. We had barely finished greeting each other before we were back at it, analyzing what had gotten stronger with me, what was still weak and what needed to be done during my time here.

So far, the main emphasis has been on connecting and strengthening muscles that will assist me with standing and starting to take steps. Alejandra refers to these muscles as “sleepy” as they haven’t been used much and need to be reawakened. Her skill lies in the ability to come up with exercises that find that precise body position that I need to be in (and there is very little margin for error in terms of my positioning) in order to engage those muscles. If my positioning is ever so slightly off, then the ability to connect that muscle is lost. Once we’ve woken up those sleepy muscles, then it’s just a matter of strengthening that connection by repetition.

The main muscles we’ve been working on are my glutes and hamstrings – and to a lesser extent my calves – as these are the muscles that will allow me to bend my knee from standing, lift my hip and take a step. The following video/photos show some of the exercises we’ve done everyday to connect these muscles:

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Before I sign off, I have to mention Grant Korgan who has been an inspiration for me since I first got injured and was the one who told me about Alejandra and how much she had helped him with his recovery from SCI. I’ve mentioned and linked to him a few times on my blog but now I’ve had the great fortune to spend some time with him and his wife Shawna out here. Big shoutout to them, from Ale le le waterfalls on the east side of Maui.

Ale le le falls

Bridging a damaged connection

“My legs are responding well to me today.”

“C’mon quads, you’ve got enough strength in you for another few squats!”

“Usually it’s my right hip that is stronger but today my left hip is doing pretty well.”

Feeling a distinct separation between the upper and lower bodies is inevitable in Spinal Cord Injury. Obviously, the function of my hips and pelvis and legs and feet is very different from the function in my arms and chest and upper body. I recently starting noticing that my language had reflected this separation as well, that I was frequently talking about my legs as if they were a disconnected part of my body.

This was the result of progress after all. I had only recently started to feel more of a connection with my lower body because I had finally started to gain tiny traces of movement and control over parts of my legs, especially my quads. But with more progress comes greater expectations, at least for me. Since I had spent the better part of the last two or three months working on reestablishing that damaged yet still present connection to my legs by doing squats (like the ones I shared in a previous post), practicing standing with little assistance and modifying my walking exercises, I had started to expect more out of my legs.

I have written before about my belief of the importance of language and the power that words can have on healing and recovery. I’ve been conscious and careful about what words I use to describe myself or my body but somehow it took me a while to realize that referring to my legs as “they” and saying that “they’re responding well or not well to me” was falling into this trap that I had tried so desperately to avoid.

There is no “they” because it’s all “me”. And just because the signals getting through to my lower body are a bit weak doesn’t mean that they are cut off from the rest of me. So I will do my best to avoid this language misstep especially since I should be celebrating the fact that my legs are doing so much better and responding much more than they used to.

I’m always a bit hesitant to share videos of progress as I don’t ever want to give the wrong impression and lead people to think that I’m more healed than I actually am, but I decided it’s worth sharing the following two videos of my walking progress.

The main thing to notice in these videos (other than those incredibly fashionable leg braces that support my ankles) is that I’m locking out my own legs. In other words, my knees are not being held in place by the therapist (like they used to) and I’m able to initiate, establish and maintain one knee locked and stable while the other leg takes a step with assistance.

In the second video it’s harder to see the action of the knees but you can still see that the therapist is only helping me to complete the step forward. I’m doing most of the rest and if you pay attention to my right foot, you’ll see that I actually take a few steps with no assistance at all on that foot! It’s definitely sloppy, and it’s still a long ways to go, but it’s a start. I’ll take it.