Exciting News! – A book is coming….

When I started writing this blog in November of 2012, just five months after I suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury, my intention was only to have an honest and unobtrusive way to keep my family and friends updated on the process of my recovery: the struggles, challenges, objectives, achievements, breakthroughs and thought processes behind this insane journey. I didn’t want to crowd everyone’s inbox with emails or spew out random thoughts or take to social media for these updates, so I figured I would write a blog and have it out there for whomever was interested in staying in the loop.

Little did I know where this would lead…

Thanks to all of you and your continued interest, support, encouragement and readership, the blog continued to grow and reach more people than I could ever imagine. Within a few months of me launching this website and sharing my story, I was getting readers and messages from all over the world. People were asking questions, seeking advice (for which I had very little to provide…), searching for perspective, and often times, relating some of the experiences I was sharing to their own respective experiences. I also learned that there were many people out there — with spinal cord injuries or other medical conditions or just life challenges — who could identify with some of the larger issues that I would sometimes raise.

I was flattered to have anyone outside of my personal social community care or read about my story and it wasn’t until many of you commented and told me that you wanted to know more about a specific story, that you were curious about something I had shared and asked me to delve more into it, that I got the idea for doing something bigger.

Well, I can now say that that bigger something is coming very soon.

For the better part of the last two years — and with increasing intensity, energy, time and commitment — I have been turning the story of my recovery into a book. And this book is coming to fruition now as I am in the final process of revisions and edits to get it ready to publish.

This blog has been so many positive things for me but I didn’t expect that it would spark the creative effort and undertaking of completing a full-on memoir of my experience. But alas, that’s where we are.

I will be posting more info very soon about the book — including a landing page where you can sign up to get updates and have access to an advance copy, as well as a specific timeline for the final publish (summer reading anyone???) — but for now, I want to thank all of you for the incredible support and commitment you’ve shown me in reading my blog, commenting, sharing your perspectives and launching this crazy little idea within me that will hopefully turn into something real and tangible very soon.

I always have, and continue, to read and respond to every single comment that has ever been posted on this blog and if it weren’t for the conversations that you have all initiated with me, this likely would not have happened. So thank you. I’m grateful to have this opportunity. And I’m excited to share the larger story very soon…

An Unexpected Sojourn to the Tarmac of Santiago Airport

I wrote this post for the new Story of the Month series that my non-profit (No Limits Collaborative) just started. Feel free to check out our site if you haven’t already. More great things to come!

http://www.nolimitscollaborative.org/story-of-the-month/an-unexpected-sojourn-to-the-tarmac-of-santiago-airport

There I was, sitting in a flimsy collapsible wheelchair on the tarmac, with the hot starry sky above me and hundreds of frantic and upset travelers walking past me to ascend the stairs into the massive Boeing 777. Most people didn’t seem to notice me as they scrambled past and those that did make eye contact glanced away quickly, seemingly pitying me as they climbed up into the airplane.

Living with a spinal cord injury is not easy, to say the least. Getting around town and into and out of cars and buildings and houses to get through day-to-day life is difficult enough. But traveling internationally presents a host of new challenges that one must overcome just to get from point A to point B.

Last month, I had just finished a trip to Chile for continued physical therapy and rehab and after weaving our way through the traffic-clogged streets of Santiago, the taxi had dropped my buddy and I off at the airport with plenty of time to catch our overnight Air Canada flight. We had arrived quite early, informed the grumpy man behind the check in desk that I would need an aisle chair to get onto the plane, and once he indifferently nodded and shrugged us away, we had made our way to the gate to wait for our plane to board.

I have traveled on planes enough since my injury to know that I must communicate my needs repeatedly and meticulously to different members of the airline at all the different parts of the airport in order to ensure that everything happens smoothly: that the airline has an aisle chair with which to board me onto the plane (personal wheelchairs are too wide and bulky for the narrow aisle), that we can take apart my wheelchair and stow parts, if not all of it, in the closets and overhead bins – much to the frequent dismay of the flight attendants who usually refuse to remove their personal belongings to make room, before they sometimes finally concede – and that we can board the plane before all of the other travelers in order to easily get to our seats. So this time, as any other, we had communicated all of this and assumed that things were in order.

The airline didn’t announce that the flight was delayed, it just became clear when an hour had passed after our boarding time and nothing had happened. The Air Canada staff didn’t even seem to know where the plane was (we were in a ground level gate without the jetway to the plane so no one could see it) and didn’t ease the travelers’ concerns by staying silent. Things started to get a little tense, as expected, since most of the travelers had connecting flights to catch in Toronto and it was clear that many would miss their connections.

Finally, we were told that the plane was on the tarmac and that buses would shuttle us there to board. Immediately, I recognized the challenge this would pose to me and I flagged down the Air Canada employee who wasn’t frantically running around trying to quell the unrest. It turned out that he was the manager and I politely explained my situation to him and asked if they had a plan to get me into the plane. He blinked and stared back at me in silence. I repeated my request, this time a bit more forcefully and he waved his hand at me dismissively, crossed his arms and just stood there apathetically.

Some people believe that it can be easier and better to speak a foreign language when one is angry or intoxicated, likely from a lack of inhibition or restraint. As such, after two weeks in Chile, my Spanish was flowing strong and following the uninspiring response from the Air Canada manager, the verbal tirade that flowed out of me felt so natural that I even surprised myself with the extent of my vocabulary and the grammatical accuracy of my complex sentences. The manager shrugged and walked away.

A few minutes later, a friendly young guy wearing a Santiago Airport t-shirt and assisting an elderly woman in a wheelchair approached me. Upset at how I was being treated by the Air Canada staff, he offered to help. “Estos huevónes no saben nada,” he said. These idiots don’t know anything. He had seen someone in a wheelchair get into a plane from the tarmac before and said that the airport had a specific device that he would try to secure to help us. I was simultaneously baffled and grateful when he took out his personal cell phone and started making calls. A few minutes later, despite the continued confusion and indifference of the actual Air Canada staff, friendly young guy assured us that we would be ok. “No te preoccupes.” Don’t worry, he said with a smile.

And that’s how I ended up on the tarmac, almost four hours after our designated departure time, with the plane towering behind me as friendly young guy attached the wheelchair I was sitting in to a device with small wheels and levers that would slowly climb up each stair, all the way up to the plane door.

I don’t think Air Canada realized or appreciated just how helpful friendly young guy had been since they had completely excused themselves from helping me and never once took initiative to resolve the unexpected set of events. Even when we finally got into the plane, they didn’t have an aisle chair available and seemed surprised and annoyed to have to “deal with me.” Thankfully, my buddy is the strongest person I know and he effortlessly piggybacked me from the flimsy wheelchair to my seat.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, maybe just that sometimes no amount of preparation or communication will be enough to assure a smooth journey. Or maybe that when traveling, especially internationally, one should be prepared for any kind of adversity or challenge. Or maybe that there are kind, generous people out there and it’s imperative to be grateful for them. Or maybe just that Air Canada really sucks and needs to step up their game. Probably all of the above…

Finally finding exhaustion

I want to be exhausted. I want to push myself beyond what I thought was imaginable and then push more. I want that feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing that I have absolutely nothing left in the tank. And, until recently, I hadn’t found this feeling for years.

I’ve mentioned fatigue quite a bit throughout my posts and it’s always something I struggle to describe clearly. The conversations are often like this:

Them: “How long do you do that exercise before you get tired?”

Me: “It’s hard to say. There are so many factors that go into how I’m doing on a particular day that it’s not always easy to know why my body reacts in certain ways. Some days, I’ll be really tight and it will be hard to move because of that. Other days I just might not connect to the muscles that I want.”

Them: “So you’re just tired from the beginning? Or from something you did the day before?”

Me: “Um… kinda… but not really. It’s not tired, it’s just that I may not have the ability to get the neurological connection to make the movement.”

Them: “You mean like you’re sore?  Your muscles just don’t respond?”

Me: “Yeah sorta like the responding. It’s not soreness. I haven’t felt sore at all in years. At least not in my legs. I’m always sore in my shoulders, neck and arms, like, all the time. But with my legs it’s just… I don’t know… it’s hard to describe.”

And that’s usually where I give up.

In my last post, I talked about neurological fatigue, that unique sensation that best describes that sensation of not being able to connect to a movement or to specific muscles in my lower body. Recently, on my most recent trip to visit Alejandra and applying the lessons of her one-0f-a-kind Neurokinetic Pilates method, I finally found exhaustion. And not the esoteric neurological kind that I have a hard time describing. Just good ol’ fashioned “I want to collapse and lay down and not move” exhaustion. And it felt amazing.

I’ve written extensively about how Alejandra is always able to find and make new connections within my body, and this time was no exception. On the first day I see her, she always asks me what my objective is for the time I’m with her. This time, I repeated the same exact thing I told her last year: that I want to get the connection for hip flexion, that is, to pick up one foot and take a step already…

Unlike last year when she told me that she didn’t think I was ready for that yet and I needed to work on a bunch of other movements in order to get myself strong enough to even be able to attempt hip flexion, this trip was a different story. Alejandra agreed that it was the right time that I try to start tackling this immense challenge for me: going against gravity to lift a foot off the ground step it in front of the other. Sounds simple, but not for me.

Alejandra did what she always does, she took the exercises I was doing (which I shared with videos in my last post), and pushed me much further beyond my comfort zone. The result was that for the first time in years, I was actually 100% physically and mentally tired and exhausted after each day of working with her. She was able to find the limits of both my physical fatigue as well as my neurological fatigue, crush them both and push me much further into an entirely new realm of exhaustion.

My videos are below. The significant thing to understand is that until I saw her, I was doing similar exercises always facing forwards on the CoreAlign machine, with the comfort and security of the ladder in front of me and with both arms bracing me. With her, we turned everything sideways, so that there was literally nothing in front of my knees and I could only hold on with one arm. To say that it pushed my boundaries is a massive understatement and now I have the satisfaction of knowing that in just a couple of weeks, she was able to dramatically push my limits and get me to work in that sweet spot of struggle, abject fear that I may collapse, and the ensuing accomplishment.

And I can finally remember, and relive, the feeling of exhaustion.

 

 

Staying upright and reviving the Running Man

With a new year comes new accomplishments and new objectives in my journey of recovery. The last few months of 2016 brought with them the ability for me to work harder and longer in a standing position, relying greatly on the Core Align, the piece of Pilates equipment with sliding carts under my feet and a wooden ladder in front of me that has become the most fundamental tool for my rehab.

Only a few months ago, standing and exercising at the Core Align would end with exhaustion after no more than thirty minutes. More than physical or muscle fatigue (which people always ask me about) the thing that would get me the most would be what I refer to as neurological fatigue.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what this feels like but suffice it to say that getting my body into positions that challenge my flexibility, balance, and endurance and then trying to connect to a new movement and push myself as much as possible results in my entire neurological system feeling tired. I’ve been flooding my lower body with so many signals from my brain and telling it to move using the limited pathways of my damaged spinal cord that after a while, the signals just don’t get through as efficiently or successfully as before. It’s as if you have two lanes of fast moving traffic (the signal from my brain) with cars, buses and trucks flying down the roadway and after some time, the two lanes turn into one and the one lane turns into a narrow street which only a car can pass. By the end of it, the traffic can still get through and provide the message to the other side, but it’s much slower.

Much of the work I’m doing now is finding new exercises and movements that tread the line of being so challenging that they seem nearly impossible, and then doing so many repetitions and working through them so hard that I reach neurological fatigue, and then pushing just a bit more. Through this process, the line of exhaustion keeps getting pushed further, my strength improves and I’m able to maintain the connections I’ve made in a standing position more effectively and for a longer duration.

The videos below – aside from showing my first foray into wearing spandex, a necessary item during these chilly winter mornings – indicate just how far I’ve come in the second half of 2016. In each video, I’m working on one specific aspect of the walking and gait cycle that will each contribute to being able to take steps. The shaking in my legs that sometimes occurs (which I’ve written about previously) is a clear indication of reaching that point of neurological fatigue. So without any further ado, let’s get into it:

Video 1

Working on holding my front knee bent and strong while pulling forward with the back leg also bent. It wasn’t that long ago that I was unable to hold my weight in one leg bent for any amount of time; now it’s longer and stronger and more effortless.

 

Video 2

“The Running Man” Anyone who grew up in the early 90s remembers MC Hammer, his baggy pants and the ubiquitous and memorable dance move that he made famous. Now I’m doing my own version of the Running Man by alternating lunges back and forth on both legs, trying to become faster at sending those neurological signals from my brain and telling my body to switch left and right while maintaining good alignment and body position.

 

 

Video 3

Holding a lunge, then rotating open and finding space and flexibility in my ribcage and thoracic spine. Again, only a few weeks before, I couldn’t conceive of staying in a lunge and doing any other kind of movement. It just would have been too much for my neurological system to handle; now it’s become more manageable.

 

Hopefully this gives a little taste of where I’m at and where I’m moving towards in this new year. More updates to come very soon.

A gander through Bali & Lombok

One thing became very clear within minutes of driving out from the swanky, sparkling international airport in Bali: this was NOT going to be an accessible place for a wheelchair.

While I’ve learned to transfer into and out of most cars relatively comfortably – Hummers and massive pickup trucks aside – the minivans that taxis in Bali preferred (that looked like a Dodge Caravan that had been squished on both ends, making it taller and more compact) were a challenge to say the least. The sidewalks were narrow, potholed, bumpy, and their frequent stone steps made them completely unusable. Almost every single store or restaurant had at least a couple of tall, stone steps to enter. And all four of our lodging options – despite my meticulous review of online photos and numerous phone calls and emails confirming the lack of steps, obstacles or other impediments – indeed presented us with unexpected challenges.

But amidst all of these day-to-day struggles and unforeseen hiccups, we were blessed with incredibly helpful people who were always eager to help. I want to steer clear of the exhausted and overused trope I’ve read in so much travel writing and speak about the “friendliness of the locals” but I know no other way to admit just how helpful the locals were at all times. They were fantastic, never once approaching me in an uncooperative way or with confusion about how I enter or exit a particular building or car or storefront. We were consistently greeted with collaborative attitudes and helpful smiles. Yes we were tourists paying for their services, but I’ve traveled enough to know that simply paying someone for their work doesn’t necessarily result in sincere warmth and cooperation.

Even at the airport, as we were waiting on the tarmac to board our little plane that would make the 30-minute hop over to Lombok, Bali’s much quieter and less developed neighboring island, once the airport staff finally realized what we had repeatedly told them (that I would need assistance getting up the steep steps into the plane), they only scratched their heads in confusion for a couple of seconds before they sprang into action and one unfortunate baggage handler had the pleasure of piggybacking me up the stairs, inside the plane, and into the seat.

In fact, the only sideways stares and resentful glances I got were from the other tourists. The locals always treated me with respect but it was the European and North American travelers who made me feel the most uncomfortable. At one point, I practically had to hold Brita back from unleashing a verbal tirade upon an elderly French couple who seemed to go out of their way to be unhelpful and rude every time I was near them.

It was a wonderfully relaxing trip and allowed Brita and I to have some much needed downtime. I had never taken such a long break from my rehab and exercise but it became very clear that my body desperately needed this time to unwind, rest and relax. Every time I got antsy about my nonexistent exercise regimen, I reminded myself that after four years of going going going and working as hard as I had been, I was due to give myself a break.

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On the snorkeling boat to Menjangan Island

One of the highlights of the trip was doing an all-day snorkeling venture in what many people considered to be one of the best snorkeling places in Indonesia, if not all of Southeast Asia.

It took some friendly boat workers to help me on and off the rickety motor boat, but once I strapped on the snorkel and got in the water, I was in my element, loving every weightless moment and appreciating the opportunity to do a unique and memorable activity in a comfortable physical state, outside of the wheelchair and free of the confines of gravity.

While there were certainly some frustrations – not being able to explore as much as I wanted, physical pain and discomfort, and a steady flow of logistical challenges – Brita kept asking me if it was all worth it. If the long travel and the unfamiliar terrain and the different cultural attitudes and the physical struggles were all worth the effort?

After years of craving to go abroad and finally having the opportunity to feed my desire for international travel and novel explorations, my unequivocal and repeated response was YES.

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A slightly less lonely passport

Brazil. Nepal. Slovakia. India. Finland. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (yes that’s the official name). Tunisia. Laos. Egypt. New Zealand. Norway. Peru.

Between 2003 and 2012, my passport filled with stamps from the many places I had the extraordinary privilege of traveling to. As a trip leader for a company with biking, hiking and multi-sport vacations all over the world, I had the incredible opportunity to live and work in a number of different countries, getting to know the cultures more intimately and having the chance to explore some of the less traveled paths. As a result, my time off from work while I was in these places allowed me to continue to travel and explore on my own, often times with little to no expectation or planning. It was as simple as finding a cheap flight and a fun destination and off I went.

A last minute schedule change to give me a week off from a long stretch of work in Tuscany allowed me to hop on a cheap flight to Romania and check out the land of Dracula. Killing time on a layover in Lima resulted in a chance stroll past a ticket counter advertising bargain flights to Buenos Aires so I had no choice but to pull out the credit card and book a flight for later in the summer. When my mom told me that she was going on a work trip to Sweden and I was on biking tours in Spain, I decided that it made perfect sense to squeeze in a trip up to northern Europe before continuing my schedule on the Iberian peninsula.

And so it went again and again and I was able to spend my twenties seeing much of the world and developing an insatiable desire to continue exploring and becoming exposed to different cultures, peoples, and ways of life. In 2008 I had to get extra pages added into my passport to accommodate the flow of visas and stamps I was accumulating and that’s when I came up with a simple life goal for myself: to have the number of countries I’ve visited always be a higher number than my age.

The last international trip before my injury was in January 2012 when I went to Colombia with one of my closest friends. Because it was the 37th country I had visited at that point, I knew I had a few years buffer before my age would catch up but for a long time, my severely weakened physical state as well as the daunting logistical challenges involved in traveling abroad prevented me from fulfilling my ever-present urge to get out into the world. This was the case until recently when Brita and I decided that enough was enough.

After four and a half years of not leaving the good ol’ U S of A, and countless experiences of hiding my envy and jealousy of my friends and family as they regaled me with their stories of travel, the two of us decided to fly almost as far away as possible and spend two weeks in Indonesia.

After allowing my passport to expire three years ago – a virtually unthinkable prospect back in my heyday of globetrotting – I had to trade in my trusty, wrinkled, beat up version with its haphazard stamps and sewn in extra pages for a blank, lonely new passport. When it arrived, I flipped through its empty pages, wondering if and when I could fill it with more country names (recognizing these as gross oversimplified symbols of novel trips) before readying it to get christened on this first adventure.

Gone were the days of stuffing some items into a backpack and carelessly jumping onto a plane with little planning or preparation, knowing that everything would inevitably work out. Nowadays anywhere I go, even if it’s for one night, requires that I meticulously go through a long list of essential items for my health and comfort. Add on to that the unpredictability of where we were going and how easy or difficult every single thing would be, and my packing list was just a little bit more complicated than it used to be, to say the least.

But pack we did, and I grabbed my lonely, blank, rigid passport and smiled at the thought of this new chapter as we headed out…

Next post: A summary and reflection of our trip 

The Donner Party Swim

7:30AM, East end beach, Donner Lake

The morning greeted us with a radiant sun rising up over the high Sierras, its rays cutting through the perfect blue sky and shining strong, reminding us that although fall was only a couple of weeks away, its summer warmth was still in store for the day. 

The swimmers gathered on the shores of Donner, surveying the water, like a sheet of glass stretching almost three miles across the length of the lake. Some, like me, had trained for this day for months, convincing themselves that the frigid water and the 6,000 feet of altitude wouldn’t get the better of them in their attempt to push their limits and accomplish what had seemed previously unfathomable. Others had decided that they would get into the swimming spirit in any way, shape, or form and be out in the open water, itself a significant challenge and accomplishment. And finally, there were all of the friends and family who would cheer and support from a kayak, paddle board or from the dry, rocky, tree lined shore.

Starting the swim, water like glass

I had been worried that the powerful and relentless winds and waves that Brita and I had swam through when we had trained here a month earlier would challenge all of us and make this feat harder, possibly even impossible for me, but thankfully Mother Nature decided to prove me wrong.  

The winds were pleasantly absent, the water was refreshingly cold yet beautifully clear, and the boundless energy and positive spirit of everyone permeated through the smiles and faces of all the swimmers and supporters alike. Even the orange swim caps with our non-profit’s name and logo plastered on the side (a last minute addition to the event that arrived just in time) looked perfect countouring everyone’s heads, marking us all a part of this magical experience which had all started as a crazy idea in my head nine months earlier. 

Quick break to refuel and warm up!

And so it was that after weeks and months of planning and training and visualizing how this would all go down, September 10th was upon me, and this goal within my larger goal of recovery which had consumed and motivated and driven me for so long was now about to be realized… 

I could write volumes about this day, I could share way too many details about everything, about the incredible community that gathered together, all the people who volunteered their time and efforts to make it a smooth and seamless experience, of the serenity of the water as each passing stroke of my arms cut through its stillness and propelled me forward, of the astounding sense of accomplishment I felt upon the completion of swimming those five miles around the lake… 

Suffice it to say that it was one of the best days of my life, one that I will remember forever, and as I think of the collective energy of that wonderful community who showed up, who took the time to drive up to the mountains and be at part of this first of all firsts, I will draw strength and passion and hope for future accomplishments and conquered objectives. And it looks like there’s a good chance that we may do this all again next year…   🙂

Little video capturing some of the awesomeness: