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Struggling to stand up

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The trip home was, in every way, bittersweet.

The children were thrilled, back with friends and the house they had missed. They could swim in the privacy of their home in the woods of North Carolina instead of an apartment pool in California.

John and Marci Pou had hoped, of course, to be returning under different circumstances. But as they had approached their one-year anniversary at Project Walk, they knew something had to give.

Money was too tight, and the children's emotions seesawed between adjustment out west and their unfinished lives back east. John regressed physically.

The couple had pledged to give the exercise therapy program in Carlsbad, Calif., a year — 12 months to see if Project Walk could do anything to undo the effects of the diving accident that shattered the fifth cervical bone of John's spinal column and left him a quadriplegic.

There had been progress.

John had regained enough power to push himself around in a manual chair, dumping the power chair a doctor once predicted would be his fate. His balance had improved to where he could sit upright on an exercise bike without falling, even if a trainer still had to push his legs to get them to pedal.

In the end, the decisions weren't so difficult. But telling the children would be.

The family sold their dream home in North Carolina. When they returned to California in mid-July, John's demeanor improved almost immediately.

In August, the Project Walk trainers ran John through the exercises for his latest six-month evaluation.

On his first that summer of 2006, he'd scored a four. Then, six months later, a seven.

This time: 10. Yes, it was just three more points on the 0-to-40 scale. But they were happy.

*

October brought the 2007 Steps to Recovery fundraiser, with the largest crowd yet and all the stars.

Mike Thomas, Project Walk's first client, awed everyone, walking a half-mile with only a couple of ski poles in hand. Another man was walking again, and there were some newcomers, too.

John wasn't one of them.

He was disappointed, of course, but he had never seen Project Walk as a magic bullet, an escape from the reality of paralysis. He'd come to accept that, and take heart from his improvement in body and soul.

"It makes it all worth what we did to come here," he said.

Project Walk had recently partnered with the University of California, Irvine, to measure any correlation between its therapy and spinal cord injury recovery. Steven Cramer, an associate professor of neurology at the school, had found "modest but significant gains" in examining 30 participants over six months.

*

February included several accomplishments: For the first time without someone holding his hips, John kept his balance while kneeling and grasping a box. He had also stood, holding a bar, without anyone spotting his torso.

Two days later came the biggest "first" yet.

Marci heard someone yelling her name. Looking across the workout room, she saw John surrounded by four trainers and, in front of him, one of the rolling walkers that first-time steppers use.

Then they had him up, and John beamed.

They didn't even count how many steps he managed; it was no longer a number that mattered, or the fact that it took all four therapists to help, picking up and planting each leg, supporting him, pulling the walker along.

What mattered was how he looked that day, as he took his first steps, past the words painted on a wall that read, "Knowledge. Determination. Results."

"Wow," said another client's caregiver, who had stopped to watch. "He's tall."

The slumped shoulders, the frown, the defeated man of 2 1/2 years ago were all a memory.

Whether John ever accomplishes the ultimate goal of walking on his own, he and Marci know they have tasted triumph. It's the simple gift of having goals once again, of being able to make his children proud, of refusing to give up.

It's knowing that when he struggles to stand, he stands so tall.


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