I am fast approaching the 13th anniversary of my accident - August 17, 2004. Every year as this date gets closer it causes me to pause for a little and take a look at where I am, how far I have come and where I would like to go. This year I paused and with a little 'gentle' encouragement from our Clients and Crew, I decided that it was time to practice what I preach. I was going to commit to an intensive week of programming at Making Strides and follow it up with weekly sessions; documenting my progress and feeling good in myself that when new clients ask if I also train at Making Strides that I can emphatically and proudly say that I do. I have had lots of excuses in the past: "I'm too busy" "The schedule is too full" or "I train with my PT outside of here" that have allowed me to hold myself back. No more excuses.
But first let me take you back to the start.
I was 18 years old, studying a business degree at James Cook University in Townsville and living on campus. It was my mum that decided I would live on campus - because it was safer. Being a Mount Isa girl, I could find trouble anywhere.
This photo was taken the night of my accident, it is my last 'before' photo. I had been celebrating a friends birthday with a night out on the town at the end of O Week. After an epic week of parties, this night was to be a low key end to it all. As the night unfolded I found myself sitting on the ledge outside my friends window, sizing up a nearby tree. Everyone has a 'tequila story' and well this is mine. My intuition was screaming loudly in this moment, I knew I was going to hurt myself but I've never let pain get in the way of a good story. So after many missed opportunities to listen to my gut, I set my hesitations aside and tried to jump from a third floor ledge to a tree.
It was supposed to be a story to tell over the breakfast table the next morning. I never made it back to tell it. I fell 10m and hit the ground without losing consciousness, so the excruciating experience of sustaining a spinal cord injury is very well clear in my mind. I thought I had winded myself at first, I didn't try to get up - so I didn't know that I couldn't. I just laid very still, struggling to breathe, waiting for help to arrive.
I dislocated my 9th thoracic vertebrae by a complete vertebral width, transecting my spinal cord at the T9/10 level. I was diagnosed as ASIA A Complete and lived the next 7 months as an inpatient at the Princess Alexandra Hospital Spinal Injuries Unit.
I spent the next 8 years waiting. Waiting for a cure.
I worked. I travelled. I lived. But I was still waiting. Always afraid to admit that I was waiting. I admire people that can express the desire to walk again. As a young girl my spinal cord injury broke my heart. A truely unbearable heartbreak. As such I've never admitted to wanting to walk again in fear that I couldn't possibly handle another heartbreak if it ends up being something that just isn't on the cards for me.
After all those years of waiting, I read an article about an Australian man who was travelling to the USA for activity based therapy ***SPOILER ALERT: It was a story about Irwin, who now attends Making Strides*** Things began falling in place and I decided that activity based therapy was something that I would like to explore. As a cure started to seem further and further away I was looking for anything to help preserve the body I once loved, to stop it deteriorating beyond repair before my long awaited cure arrived.
I made two solo trips to the USA in 2012 and 2013 for a total of 6 months and at a cost of approximately $50,000. I rented a villa, hired a car and trained 3 hours a day, 5 days a week for those 6 months. The experience changed me both physically and mentally, putting the wheels in motion for a new outlook on life.
Not long after my return to Australia, Making Strides was born, and I have not looked back since. Unfortunately, the hours required to help build a business meant that while our company was thriving my personal health goals were pushed to the back burner. We were working so hard to ensure that all Australians could have access to high quality therapy without having to leave the country that I forgot that I too was one of those Australians that needed access.
Let's fast forward almost 4 years, our Making Strides family is bigger than we could have ever imagined. We have 3 full time clinical staff, 5 casual exercise physiologists, a remedial massage therapist, myself and a client base of 150 - 40% of whom are return visiting clients. We are also a placement site for university students from Griffith, UQ, QUT, USC and SCU and take up to three students at a time. To say our little warehouse in Burleigh Heads is a full house is an understatement. But that's exactly how we like it around here.
This brings me to my week of training - 5 days and 5 trainers.
Day 1 - Jess
Jess is celebrating 2 years with Making Strides this week, so this is the perfect opportunity for me to get in touch with and find out first hand what it is that our clients love so much about her unique style of training.
A visiting client from Japan, Shunsuke, once described her training as logical and there is no better word for it. It's like reading a book, everything makes perfect sense, there is a method to all that she does and her clinical reasoning is evident from start to finish. All that aside, Jess is equal amounts cheerful and sassy which makes the perfect combination for someone you want in your corner while training.
Today we started with a well overdue stretch and spent some time actively trying to engage some muscles below my injury level to assist with some movements on the table. From here Jess then applied some electrical stimulation to my abdominal muscles while we worked my core with some ab crunches. Following this we moved on to the Keiser where we used the pneumatic assistance to go through some bridges, reverse bridges and sit-ups. By this point my abs are on fire and Im wondering how much is left in the tank to make it through my first session back.
By chance my Mum arrives during this session, I don't usually let her watch because her emotions while watching me do things like this are written all over her face, it's hard to concentrate. She is equal amounts proud and amazed. I've see some pretty incredible things at Making Strides so Im always expecting the big moments around here.
The big moments today come in the form of crawling and standing on the vibration platform. Crawling I am well accustomed to but this would be my first time standing on the PowerPlate and it was a pretty awesome experience. The intense vibrations help to light up my nervous system and it almost instantly has a positive impact on my sensory feedback. My senses become heightened and Im suddenly very aware of every part of my body.
The standing is beyond painful, after many years sitting my body is very adverse to any position that isn't in my wheelchair. I sought medical advice for my lumbar lordosis and was advised that there was nothing that could really be done for it and that I should have been standing regularly to avoid this - something I was never recommended following my inpatient rehabilitation. This will be the focus of most of my sessions at Making Strides - undoing the damage I have done by sitting. By being too complacent and accepting of my situation.
First session back is a success. The big take home messages for me today are:
1. The PowerPlate is an incredible tool in this setting.
2. Jess is an even more incredible asset to Making Strides. Her knowledge and compassion coupled with her drive to give her clients the very best make her an invaluable member of our crew - even if she does stink out my office with hard boiled eggs every day.
Day 2 - Meg
I woke up for Day 2 feeling great, no pain except a little reminder from my abs that they too were awake. I love feeling muscle soreness in my abdominals, it reminds me that they are there and they are capable of much more than I am asking them to do on the daily. The stronger my abs are, the better my posture and the less my upper body has to compensate for their absence.
Meg is one of our newest staff members and Im excited to train with her to see how she has progressed. Meg has an arsenal of exercises that she has gained through her training here at Making Strides as well as working as an EP at a physiotherapy clinic and F45 a functional fitness gym. Meg strongly believes in the ethos behind our training here at Making Strides and that is evident in the passion and performance she gives every client in every session.
My favourite part of today's session is some kneeling on the peanut ball. Continuing on from the work I did with Jess yesterday, Meg is further trying to activate my abdominals and work on my hip control, which as my week progresses will be of significant importance. Today may seem cheerfully low key but it just highlights Meg's ability to see what is needed and get to work grinding out what needs to happen to ensure her clients can achieve their big goals.
Day 3 - Wade
Probably the day I was looking forward to most this week was my session with Wade. Wade is also celebrating two years with Making Strides very soon and it has been a long time in between sessions with him so Im excited for the comparison.
I'm only on Day 3 but already Im noticing improvements in my general feeling of health and wellbeing. My bladder and bowel function is already improving, things happen faster and my appetite is helping to contribute to that. Im beginning to crave the nutrients my body has been needing and being able to satisfy those cravings while feeling energised is putting me in a great mood. As Im watching the morning news there is a story that says new research has shown that calcium supplements have no effect on increasing bone density and that instead it is important we exercise for the muscle strength required to adequately support our bones. This is further incentive for me to continue with regular training. My upper body is carrying such a heavy workload it is time I take proper care of it and ensure that I am giving it all the tools necessary to allow me to continue to make it through this life strong and injury free.
Wade is putting a little extra effort into my session today. He gives every session 100% but Im watching him from my office out on the training floor during his break practicing the setups he is working on. My excitement levels were warranted, today we are starting off with some kneeling on the PowerPlate. As my hip flexors slowly release, Wade increases my stretch and within minutes Im feeling more free than I've felt in years.
Wade is our creative genius. He's always quietly innovating and coming up with new crazy setups that he wants to put his clients in to achieve maximum results and that is exactly what I got today. We did some core work in the Keiser and after the groundwork the girls had laid the two days before, Wade and I were really able to get some great activation in my lower abdominals. Little results like this give me such a incredible boost to my motivation, also a little bit of regret that I let it go so long between sessions.
We finished up today with some standing off the high table. Some pain free standing I might add. In just three days I have already made progress in loosening my my eternally tight back and hips, Im hopeful to see even more progress over the next few days.
Day 4 - Alex
Like Meg, Alex is one of our newer trainers but you wouldn't know it unless you were told. He's cheeky and playful but it's just a clever disguise, because he is equally intelligent and competitive and is always on the lookout for opportunities to take his clients sessions to the next level.
A little more kneeling today, this time with stim on my glutes and a few adjustments to assist and it is the first time I am able to actually perform some upper body exercises while in kneeling without lumbar pain. It is an invigorating start to my session. Another first for me today, because of my lordosis I am usually restricted to riding the recumbent spin bike but Alex has a setup for me that he thinks will work with my body perfectly. And it does. It's exciting to be able to see yourself physically exerting yourself below your level of injury, it's encouraging beyond belief and makes the visions of what could be possible flow freely through your mind.
So many firsts in just one session, but that is Alex's style - he's highly motivated and wants to push the boundaries every chance he gets.
Day 5 - Jack
It's going to take something big to top the week I have just had. Anywhere else in the world and I would think it is not possible, but Im at Making Strides, so I'm quietly expecting it. Jack is our most experienced Exercise Physiologist, he is also our Service Development Manager. In the 3 years he has been with us he has cemented himself as irreplaceable.
I can't remember any of Jack's session well enough to be able to write about it in this blog. Not because it was forgettable but just through sheer elation and overjoy. I've been actively involved in activity based therapy for 5 years now and today Jack decided was the day I would try walking for the first time since my injury. If I'm being honest there is no one I would trust more, he is innovative but cautious, groundbreaking yet protective. Im scared that I've been sitting far too long and 13 years has made my body more fragile than I care to admit but I feel safe and I'm excited.
We're walking overground today with my body weight partially supported by the harness and overhead track system. Genny is helping with the walker, so knowing "Yoda" is going to be a part of this all makes me feel even more safe but also just happy to have my best friend be part of a really special moment.
Let me say right now, walking is the most mentally and physically exhausting thing I have ever tried to do in my life. It's been a really long time so trying to 'remember' how to walk is a task in itself, but then combining 'how to walk' with using what I've got to work with is a confusing combination to master. My muscle memory wants to walk one way but my body and brain aren't in sync enough to make it happen. With some really strong hip flexor initiation I was able to take some steps, they were messy but they were strong. Most importantly, they made me really happy and proud of myself and our team here.
All week I have been having the best sleep at night. It's comfortable and unbroken by the usual aches, pains, spasms and tightness. Tonight will be the best sleep I've had in years. I wake up to a text from Jack asking how my body feels, and it feels great. I've also woken up and realised a necrotic pressure sore that has been hanging around on my ankle for the past 4 months has cleared up - sometime in the past 5 days. I look for the benefits of improved circulation in how well my shoes fit, now I'm seeing them in how well my body heals. I'm still stunned at how instantaneous the health benefits of exercise become evident. Exercise truly is medicine.
I'm on such a high, I'm not ready to stop at 5 trainers and 5 days. Let's keep going...
Day 6 - Ellie
I want to give this gait training thing another go, so today Im calling in extra reinforcements. Ellie is a remedial massage therapist and two days a week she takes over my office and works her magic on our clients, family, friends and crew members. You've never met anyone like Ellie, she is the most bubbly, energetic and compassionate soul you will ever meet. And she is amazing at what she does!
I get a weekly massage with Ellie but today is going to be the day I let her work on my hip flexors. I couldn't understand why I would want to waste valuable massage time working on a part of my body that I couldn't feel. I was wrong. While I may not be able to feel the sensation of the massage, as anyone who has felt the pain of Ellie's work will know this may actually be a bonus in this case! I should not have worried because the benefits I felt immediately following the massage far outweigh the lack of sensation during the massage. This is a good reminder that it's not always about the instantaneous gratification of what we do here, we are in for the long haul.
Ellie is the perfect vision of complementary therapy here at Making Strides. She makes what we do out there just that little bit easier.
Day 7 - Genny
The number one advocate for Braid Friday, Hat Friday, Crazy Sock Friday and any other excuse she can find to liven up Friday is the leader of the team - Genny. She is the OG around here but my week of training at Making Strides has taught me something, she is also the world's best teacher because every staff member here she has trained to such an elite level that it is hard to even take their years of experience into account. Genny has given each trainer the tools they need to be a successful exercise physiologist specialising in spinal cord injury recovery but also enough freedom to develop their own unique style of training that reflects each of their strengths and skill sets.
I always highly discourage our clients from requesting to work with only one trainer and thankfully this week has cemented that position in my mind. Im so proud of the community of trainers we have here, and I haven't even given you the run down on the whole team! I didn't get to train with Jim or Bec this week but I can assure you their sessions would have added another level to my week. This small but passionate team has shown me on the daily what they are capable of when they work together. Getting to experience it first hand is the best experience in my Making Strides memories so far - Don't get me wrong I have great memories of being part of the crew but it's nice to make some memories on the other side: as a client.
Back to Genny, her website bio says it best: Don't let her playful giggle fool you. With her wealth of experience, she hand picked the rest of the crew, gave them the tools to succeed in this gym and now finds herself constantly trying to keep up with their innovative and creative ideas. Our students have become our teachers and I don't think we would have it any other way.