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… ¬† ūüôā

Little video capturing some of the awesomeness:

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Two wild horses

Recently, more and more time in each session of my rehab has been dedicated to doing a variety of exercises in a standing position. This is following on the work I’ve done using the Neuro Kinetic Pilates method that I’ve learned in Maui and almost always using the Core Align, an amazing piece of Pilates equipment that allows me to push my limits in a standing position while¬†remaining safe and secure and minimizing the risk of falling. (See this¬†previous link to remember what I’m referring to)

By finding new ways to establish movement through my lower body, I’ve encountered a new challenge. I call it the shakes. Put simply, my legs start to shake… and shake… and shake… and just when I think I may be done, my legs shake more. The video below is a perfect example of what I’m talking about and it occurs after some 15-20 minutes of doing squats or lunges or any of the other exercises I’ve been doing recently to target my quads and improve my standing stability.

It took me a while to really understand what this was. At first, when I would tell some people experienced with SCI, they would shrug it off and say that it’s simply clonus and just another typical example of the cervical level injury that I suffered. Clonus is defined as¬†“involuntary and rhythmic muscle contractions” and it is commonly seen in many people with spinal cord injuries. But, like the doctor testing your reflex by tapping your knee with a hammer, clonus is also a reflexive result and can be tested for and replicated by a practitioner. After doing these tests with me, the PT scratched her head in confusion and confirmed that I definitely didn’t have signs of clonus.

So what’s with the shakes?

As with nearly everything else in my path of recovery from SCI, I’ve had to figure it out myself.

To put it as simply as possible, until recently, the controlled movements that I had in my legs were all based on a single movement pattern. Since I was first able to start bridging and standing up independently with a walker, I’ve contracted my leg muscles using a specific pattern of engaging them and it’s gotten me really far.

But since I started doing some new standing exercises a few months ago that target completely different muscles, I’ve established a new pattern of movement and carved out¬†a new neurological pathway. Muscles that haven’t really contracted or have only had minor contractions and been overpowered by other dominant muscles are finally being forced to contract. And since my spinal cord can’t manage the communication between my brain and my legs as effectively as possible, those muscles start freaking out and shaking like crazy. It often feels like I’m trying to stand on two wild horses hell-bent on roaming the countryside.

It takes an extraordinary amount of mental effort for me to keep working these new patterns and strengthening these new neurological connections but it’s a great sign that I’m able to gain new movement and work underutilized muscles that are being forced to step up to the plate and show their stuff.

While I get annoyed with the shaking since it forces me to slow down and struggle through the movements, I still take it as a positive thing. If establishing new neurological connections, gaining strength in previously underperforming muscles and finding new ways of movement mean that I have to deal with two wild horses shaking like crazy, then so be it.

Dimming the muscle switch

With the arrival of 2016, and with it the continued realization that time passes faster and faster every year, it makes me reflect back on the goals and objectives that I set for my recovery last year, to the unfinished goals that I will carry over into the new year and to new objectives I will set for my continued path of spinal cord injury recovery.

I can confidently say that my body has changed significantly in the past year. In the last couple of weeks especially, I’ve been doing a lot more work in standing positions and my trainer has challenged me and in turn pushed the limits of the Pilates equipment (which have probably never been used for some of the exercises we do…) by coming up with novel ways of strengthening my current abilities and building off of those to challenge my body to find the next steps of function.

As a result, my endurance to stay standing – while much less than I would like – is noticeably better than it was even a month or so ago. I’ll share a¬†video below to show one of the recent exercises I’ve been working on and one that went from needing a lot of assistance a couple of months ago, to now being able to control everything relatively smoothly on my own.

So where do I go from here?

One of my main goals for 2016 will be what I’m calling “dimming the switch.” I use the analogy of a light switch because it applies quite well to what I’m referring to.

Right now, the engagement that I get to the muscles of my lower body generally works like a light switch, meaning when I turn a certain set of muscles¬†on or perform a particular movement, those muscles are on 100%, working hard, contracting strongly. When I decide to change positions or turn off, everything just kinda releases all at once. So I’m stuck with a light switch; on or off; 0 or 100%, with not much control of the in between.

For example, in the video above, if I were to try to bend my knees or do that same exercise in a light squat (which I must admit would be rather challenging for anyone), I would crumple to the ground, unable to dim that switch and maintain control of my stance. I either have to stay with legs locked straight or I get nothing at all.

You see where I’m going with this right?

The dimmer switch is essential to any kind of functional movement that I’m working to regain. I have to be able to control¬†some muscles at 50 or 70% and not just 100%. Not only that, but I also have to relearn and retrain myself on how to differentiate one side of the body from the other. In other words, if I’m going to be able to successfully take steps, my left leg must be able to bear weight and be at 80 or 90 or 100% contraction while the right leg is lifted in the air and taking a step. It utterly blows my mind to think about how a healthy body and spinal cord can so naturally manage¬†a movement pattern like walking that may seem simple, but is actually startlingly complex as it’s a consistent dimming up and down of different muscles at all times.

Like so much of what I have understood since my injury, our bodies and our movements are incredible and should not be taken for granted. It’s easy to underestimate just how much is involved with a seemingly simple set of movements, until you’re faced with an entirely different body that doesn’t react the same way.

So I will dedicate 2016 to finding that dimmer switch and being able to control my lower body movements more fluidly and effortlessly.

Grateful for more than the gobble gobble

I started writing this blog just over three years ago today, on the eve of this all-encompassing American holiday, and now I¬†look back to the third blog post I wrote,¬†just before Thanksgiving where I listed the reasons why I was thankful despite the horrific nature of my situation and being only¬†four months out from my spinal cord injury. Fortunately, every reason for gratitude I listed on that day still applies to my life today, with some notable additions of course, and it makes for a good opportunity for me to recognize one particular thing for which I’m recently very grateful.

I’ve shared my experiences at length about the unique therapy I’ve done in Maui and its¬†incredible contribution to my recovery but one of the biggest challenges I always had after coming back home from Maui was the struggle to find ways to continue doing that Pilates-based therapy. I always felt like I would make these huge gains in Maui, only to return and have that momentum of improvement stall. Luckily, that isn’t an issue anymore.

Absolute Center is a busy, successful and well-regarded Pilates studio a short drive from where I live and in recent months, it has become my primary place for rehab and wellness. When I met the owners of the studio,¬†I don’t think any of us expected our encounter to lead to the establishment of a legitimate program geared towards people with spinal cord injuries completely different from their usual offerings, but that’s what has happened. There are scores of Pilates studios all around the country and the world but it took the curiosity, progressiveness, and forward thinking of the studio¬†owners to recognize that there was an opportunity to provide this population with a viable option for this kind of Pilates based therapy.

My last few months of training and being able to continue working with the same principles and techniques that I learned in Maui have been invaluable for my recovery. I’ve seen greater gains in a short amount of time by virtue of being able to consistently train in a supportive environment and amongst talented and¬†knowledgable people who are committed to help me reach¬†my short and long-term goals. Additionally, a number of other people with spinal cord injuries have been training¬†there too and as a result, alternative and creative approaches to spinal cord injury recovery are being explored and pursued.

I am grateful for meeting these people and having the opportunity to maximize¬†my recovery efforts and I’m excited see¬†how a more persistent commitment to this therapy will show itself with the improvements in my body by¬†the time I go back to Maui again.

While I must admit that I don’t love turkey or a lot of typical Thanksgiving fare (which is why we make a somewhat less traditional feast!), what I do love about this holiday is the notion of taking a moment to be grateful.¬†Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

 

The proof and the pudding for Visualization

A few days ago, news came out of a research study from UC Irvine of a man using his thoughts to move his legs and walk by circumventing his damaged spinal cord. He was five years post Spinal Cord Injury, with no motor or sensory function below his level of injury and was able to train his brain and body to relearn how to walk. The process didn’t involve an implant or surgery but instead used an¬†electroencephalogram (EEG)¬†system that sent his brain signals directly to electrodes attached to his legs.

Although he was the only subject in the study, thus proving that the results must be replicated many times for them to have a more significant impact, this is still an incredibly exciting breakthrough. I recently wrote a post about my thoughts on cures for SCI and while I have no doubt that scientists will continue to explore this method and improve upon it, for me the most interesting element of the study, and the most relevant, was one of the more subtle points.

“He first underwent mental training to reactivate the brain areas responsible for controlling movements involved in walking. The researchers placed an EEG cap on his head to read his brainwaves, and he trained to control an avatar in a virtual reality setting.” (CBS News)

In other words, he had to visualize moving his legs and walking in order to establish that pattern of brain signals and then, just like strengthening a muscle by lifting weights or exercising, he had to continuously exercise that visualization pattern and strengthen the connection between the thought and the movement he wanted to achieve.

I’ve written at length about my frustrations with the inconsistency and shortcomings¬†of the medical establishment when it comes to Spinal Cord Injury, but one thing that I did consistently hear from almost every medical practitioner was the importance of visualization as an essential element in one’s recovery. Everyone said this to me. “If you can’t move that part of your body, then think about it. Try to move it as much as you can. Keep sending those signals.”

As a result, so much of my recovery efforts¬†are¬†based¬†on combining my intent and effort to send the signal of movement from my brain to a part of my body and then achieving that movement either with the support of equipment or a person and most often both. Even when I swim, I’ve established the habit of constantly thinking about kicking my legs and propelling myself forward using my lower body, even if I have difficulty doing so on my own.

But how do I know if my efforts to visualize and send brain signals are actually accomplishing anything? Is it possible to measure visualization skills in any way?

In my belief, those breakthroughs of progress that I’ve achieved¬†must be somewhat attributed to the ¬†diligent effort to visualize and constantly try to tap into the mental aspect of my training as much as the physical. While it’s impossible to say that X amount of this one accomplishment is due to visualization I did on certain¬†specific days, I think the bottom line is that the mental¬†exercise can and does lead to physical results, as evidenced by this research.

Furthermore, neuroplasticity (the all important yet still not widely accepted concept that the brain and nervous system is¬†not hard wired and can rewire and repair itself) gets a big boost from this research. The old school, outdated way of thinking about the neurological system would say that any damage to the system is permanent and irreparable. But if a guy can go five years after his injury, and in a manner of a few weeks visualize and retrain those parts of the brain responsible for sending signals to his lower body, and then find a way to move those muscles and walk by skipping over the damaged part of his spinal cord, then I don’t think there’s any question that neuroplasticity is real and should finally become acknowledged and taught in the medical textbooks.

I’m happy to see this story confirm the importance and success of visualization and hope that it can lead to further developments and more progressive ways of treating SCI and neurological conditions.

Another toe wiggle (finally)

If you’ve been following my recovery and reading my blog for a while, you may remember the post I wrote about waking up one morning and being able to wiggle my pinky toe with full control. This happened six months after my injury and at the time, I thought it heralded the process¬†of most every muscle in my body slowly but consistently coming back under my full control. I was wrong…

In the two and a half years since, I have worked harder towards my recovery than anything else in my life. My day to day life was, and is¬†still, 100% focused on recovery and on working towards my all important goal of getting back on my feet and walking. But despite all of that hard work, I didn’t regain function the way I was expecting. It was more than a little disheartening to regain full control of a body part, expect it to continue, and then tick off the days and weeks that went¬†by without any further recovery of function. I’ve obviously made a huge amount of progress since then, which I don’t want to discount, but there was something so satisfying about regaining absolute¬†control of any body part in my lower body that I didn’t experience since then… until now.

It seems that the pinky toe wanted a friend, that it became lonely and wanted a companion to dance along with it on my right foot. We’ve all been in that¬†situation at a party, work event, or gathering where we don’t know anyone, where we long for companionship, where we hit the apex of desperation for someone, just anyone, to come along and give us a reprieve from our isolation. (Ok I admit¬†that’s a little over dramatic but just humor me…).

Well the wait is over for my pinky toe.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something different in my right foot and when I looked down, I saw the second toe, the Co-Captain of the toes (yes that’s a Seinfeld reference, enjoy), wanting to join the movement train. Unlike the pinky though, moving the second toe was very subtle at first. I had to try really hard to make it move. But once that pathway of communication to the toe was open, all I had to do was hammer it over and over and over. And everyday after that, it became stronger to the point where now I have 95% control of it.

Ok so you may be thinking, “What is so important¬†about a toe? How does that help with the goal of walking?” Well the answer is simple. If all of my recovery was supposed to stop after one or two years, like the doctors predicted, then the fact that I’ve regained control of any part of my lower body confirms how bogus that thinking is. More importantly, it shows that a new communication pathway has been established from my brain, that a signal that previously couldn’t get through is now able to make its way to its destination. And if that’s possible, three years after my injury, then anything is possible from here on out. New pathways can be established, new muscles can be innervated, new movements can occur and the hope of regaining more function is very much alive.

It may just be a toe but it’s a validation, however small, that everything I’m working on is leading to results, and that more recovery is going to come.

Stupid comments and positive outcomes

Recent conversation outside my local coffee shop.¬†I’m sitting and chatting¬†with my friend when a woman in her mid 40s,¬†slightly disheveled but¬†generally pretty normal looking, walks out of the caf√©, stops in her tracks about ten feet away and addresses me:

 

Woman: Are you really in a wheelchair? Do you actually need it?

Me: Excuse me?

W: I‚Äôm just wondering if you‚Äôre actually paralyzed and if you need the chair or if you’re just using it, because…well…you know.

M: Um…do you really think I‚Äôd be in this damn wheelchair if I didn‚Äôt need to?

W: Well it’s just that you‚Äôre sitting with your legs sprawled open and you don‚Äôt look like you need to use that chair, so I’m wondering if you’re actually paralyzed.

M: Do you make it a habit of asking strangers such personal questions about their conditions?

W: Well, I know people who are actually paralyzed are usually very open about talking about these things and you just don’t look like you actually need a wheelchair. So, are you or not?

M: This conversation is over.

W: Well! I guess that answers that then, doesn’t it?!

M: You need to leave now lady.

 

She storms off, leaving me to wonder why she’s the one who’s agitated and exasperated.

***

In the time since my spinal cord injury, I have rarely, if ever, had any negative or insulting interactions with strangers in public. Initially, the fear of such an interaction terrified me. I was fearful of going anywhere in public, I was anxious about the looks I would get, the expressions of curiosity and bewilderment I would inevitably see on people’s revealing faces as they walked by me in the street, towering two feet above me.

But time and time again, I’ve been proven wrong. Ninety-eight percent of the time, I’m treated with civility, genuine greetings, and offers to hold the door open or move a chair out of the way to let me through. Of course, every single concession or accommodation that people make for me adds to my immense frustration at not yet being able to move freely on my feet, at eye level, where I want to be. Frustration aside, other than some confused, staring children who often don’t seem to know what to make of a guy in a wheelchair, I’ve become accustomed to cordiality and respect in public.

For that reason, I suppose I was due for a strange and unsettling interaction like this one.

I still hate everything about the wheelchair with the same passion and vitriol that I’ve had since day one. So naturally, I really dislike anyone noticing it or pointing something out about it. I continue to pray and hope for the day when it is a thing of the past and I won’t have to have this unwelcome companion with me at all times. That said, I’m not clueless, I realize that a society full of people who are upright and then a person who’s sitting down, rolling by is going to be noticed, but maybe because of the general progressiveness and open minded mentality of the people where I live, I don’t often¬†have to worry about feeling too noticed for standing out, but of course this time it was different.

If the¬†inappropriate and nosy questioning didn’t prove the nuttiness of this strange and sad¬†woman, then my¬†ensuing conversation with the cafe worker did. He came out, apologized for her behavior and said that she had ruffled some feathers with him as well when she purchased a pastry, ate some of it, complained about its price yet refused a refund, then continued to eat almost the entire pastry before returning to the counter and demanding a refund, which she was politely given. The point was proven: this person didn’t know how to interact with society and in the span of two minutes had angered a handful of people.

As she walked away, my friend (who has been a tremendous source of support and encouragement for me since my injury), instantly knew that I was on the verge of getting upset and deftly changed the course of my emotions. He told me that as crazy and weird as she had been, she was 100% right about one thing: I don’t look like I belong in a wheelchair. He said that he’s been noticing it for quite some time, that my overall health, confidence and increased¬†strength make me look less and less like the vulnerable and weak person that I was not too long ago, and more and more like someone who’s about to jump out of the chair and start running down the street. He pointed out that I was sitting so unusually in the chair, scooted forward on the cushion with my feet on the ground and my legs comfortably spread apart, and the lady just didn’t know what to make of it.

I’m grateful for my friend for helping me take an awkward and potentially frustrating public interaction and treat it as a positive occurrence. In fact, within seconds of¬†Mrs. Nuttipants’ departure, likely to annoy another self-respecting citizen or two, I had forgotten about the entire thing. I realize that had this conversation happened a year ago, I might have had a very different reaction but this time, I got the last laugh.

Standing in the Southwest

We all have sacred places, locations that have a strong link to our emotions and memories, that register some kind of greater meaning within us. One of my most sacred and favorite places in the world is the high desert plateaus and canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

I first came to this region in 2005 when I was working as a trip leader for guests¬†on biking and hiking tours and taking delight in seeing their faces when they experienced this truly special place, unlike any other in the world. It was always the same story, everyone signed up for the trip mostly because of the¬†draw of the Grand Canyon. The other areas we would visit were usually more of an afterthought, an asterisk next to the statement of having seen one of the natural wonders of the world, or as us trip leaders would jokingly refer to it, “the biggest ditch in the world.”

The result was always the same. People usually hadn’t heard much about Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park (not to mention Red Canyon, the Kaibab plateau, Cedar Breaks and some of the other places we passed through), but once they¬†saw all of it, they almost always admitted that the Grand Canyon was just a part of a truly spectacular area, and the other national parks would often cement their presence in their memories stronger than the big ditch.

I spent a good part of three summers in this area, visiting these parks over and over again yet I never got bored of the dramatic cliffs, canyons and geological formations. So it was only natural that when I found out that my fiancé had never been to any of these places, we decided to make a road trip out there. In order to make the long drive a little less painful, and to continue to explore our own state of California, we decided to throw in Death Valley National Park too, for good measure.

I wasn’t sure how I would react to visiting these places again after an eight year hiatus, and¬†more importantly, now in a very different physical situation, where I wouldn’t be able to do the hikes I had done so many times¬†or share my favorite peaks and viewpoints with Brita. What would it be like to visit my sacred place but without the physical ability to experience it as I remember? Was I setting myself up for disaster?

The answer, probably not surprisingly, was mixed. On the one hand, it was extremely difficult to be in beautiful and memorable locations yet constantly feel limited by where I couldn’t go, what I couldn’t see or relive again. On the other hand, I was able to share these places with Brita, to experience seeing them through her eyes and taking joy from that process. Not to mention that simply being in these places, with or without hiking and climbing up to the tops of the mountains, was soothing for my soul. At the end of the day, seeing the late afternoon¬†sun shine on the massive, red, sandstone cliffs of Zion confirmed to me that I had made the right decision to come back.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been practicing standing up by myself, unassisted, in a walker and while it’s certainly not as effortless, long-lasting or smooth as I’d like it to be, it’s a measurable improvement from before. It was only natural then that throughout our road trip we would pull the walker out of the car, and I would rise to my feet and¬†at least get a slightly higher view than from the wheelchair. While it wasn’t a replacement for the inability to go on a hike, and while I still long to climb back up to those peaks and descend into those canyons, it at least made it a tiny bit less painful and a whole lot more memorable. This sacred place remains sacred to me, and nothing that has happened to me physically can take that away from me.

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

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.