Straining to make progress: Program offers hope to quadriplegic man

Monday, May 5, 2008

Day 1 at Project Walk fell on their 13th wedding anniversary. In years past, John and Marci Pou might have gone to dinner.

Instead, thousands of miles from home, Marci watched as John fought to maneuver his broken body. It was June 26, 2006, the start of a regimen that would push John to the limit physically and challenge both of them emotionally and even spiritually.

Taking hold of John's sneaker, Chris Corpuz, a Project Walk recovery specialist, pulled his left leg straight out in front of him.

"All right," Corpuz directed, "bring your knee up to your chest."

John focused, trying to visualize the movement, something that 10 months earlier would have been as natural as blinking. But his leg hung immobile, until the trainer himself slowly pushed it in.

John's left knee suddenly arched in a spasm, and Corpuz asked: "Are you firing that, or is that just going on its own?"

John flashed a rare grin. "That's just going on its own."

He wasn't entirely sure what "firing that" meant, considering he was a quadriplegic with no mobility in his legs following a diving accident.

John and Marci, along with their two young children, had left their home in Iron Station, N.C., seven days earlier on this cross-country quest to find him help. Their destination was Project Walk, a spinal cord injury recovery center in Carlsbad, Calif., that pledged improved function through exercise therapy.

They had vowed to give it a year, and if he didn't show gains, the Project Walk staff would recommend quitting the program.

Improvement, scored at six-month intervals, would be rated on a 0-to-40 scale that measured John's ability to roll, sit, kneel, stand and, the hope was, to walk — with spotting, assistive devices or even nothing at all.

To start out, John scored a 4.

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The underlying premise of the program is that even quadriplegics have to "use it or lose it." If a paralyzed person never tries to move, any neural connections remaining between the brain and the spinal cord atrophy. Exercise those limbs, and the connections may be restored.

Some researchers believe the spinal circuitry alone can be retrained to control walking through "sensory patterned feedback" — using treadmills or other devices to break down and repeat walking movements.

Project Walk was founded in 1999 by Ted and Tammy Dardzinski. Ted, a former triathlete, and his wife Tammy were personal trainers running an athletic performance center in the San Diego area when a quadriplegic came to them wanting to get back on his feet.

Using trial and error, Ted developed a workout routine. Less than two years later, the client, Mike Thomas, took his first steps, using crutches. Other paralyzed clients sought out the Dardzinskis and Project Walk, now a not-for-profit, was born.

John started working in the program three times a week for three hours a day. The trainers would hoist him onto a machine to do pull-ups or place him on the floor, asking him to roll from his back to his stomach. Initially, he couldn't. Then it was one roll. Then more.

Trainers would lay him on a Total Gym machine and jiggle his knees to help stimulate even the tiniest of pushes. At first, if the trainers let go, his legs collapsed beneath him. But soon he could hold himself up briefly.

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Marci and John had traded five acres for a two-bedroom apartment in a complex where their son and daughter, Chase, now 8, and Kacie, 6, weren't allowed to even ride skateboards or bikes in the parking lot.

Money was also a concern. In North Carolina, they'd had a $1,365 mortgage. They found a renter, but still had to pick up part of the payment — on top of the $1,800 in rent they were paying in Carlsbad.

John sometimes wondered if they should just head home, especially as he and Marci began to realize that any real recovery would be slow.

Not long before Christmas 2006, the Pous received John's six-month evaluation. On the 0-to-40 developmental activity scale, he had jumped just three points to a 7.

His trainers, nevertheless, believed he should continue at Project Walk. But John and Marci had more to consider.

Their tenant had lost her job and was behind on rent. The home's water heater broke. And most important, the children were struggling to adjust.

Marci knew: She and John would have to make some hard decisions about their family's future. And soon.

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