From Paralysis to the South Pole in Just Two Years
The doctor told us that we needed to get used to life in a wheelchair.
He suggested that as a recently married couple we go on our upcoming honeymoon trip and try as best as they can to move on with our lives, as different as it was now going to be.
My wife, Shawna, and I had other ideas.
I’m a competitive outdoorsman - especially winter sports. On March 5, 2010, I had a snowmobiling accident in the Sierra backcountry, fracturing my L1 vertebrae and leaving me without feeling below my belly button.
The power of positivity…and Pilates It was looking like a pretty dire situation, but rather than acquiesce, Shawna and I chose to go the other way. I would recover and do so based on our love and belief in each other, physical activity, and a life philosophy based on positivity.
Shawna put it succinctly: “We we’re going to get through this together and do it walking, running, and skiing. I chose to believe in activity and I chose to believe in Grant’s body.”
Every day you have five to 50 things happen where you'll have the chance to choose positivity or negativity. When I consciously choose positivity it is just amazing to see how quickly I transition through any difficulty.
In this case I refused to believe in paralysis.
Along with other modalities, Pilates played a major part in getting me functional. Shawna is a professional exercise physiologist and experienced Pilates practitioner and she used the concept of mat Pilates even while I was recovering in my hospital bed. I would visualize a certain movement and she would move my legs to match that visualization.
An incredible blessing for us came when the High Five Foundation, a non-profit group in Truckee, CA that provides medical assistance for extreme athletes who've been seriously injured during a winter sport activity, provided us with a Pilates instructor and a Studio Reformer. Now we were able to begin my recovery efforts in our home in Reno, NV.
It was grueling at times, but the hard work began to pay off as I eventually moved from the wheelchair to a walker. The feeling below my waist was gradually beginning to come back!
Looking back, Pilates really helped return feeling, function and mobility to me. It was not only elongating my muscles but helping us target muscles that were what we like to call ‘sleeping’. And this targeted isolation let us wake those muscles up, turn them on and work them. Pilates really became the core of everything we were doing.
Within one year of my accident I made another leap in my spinal cord recovery by moving from a walker to arm crutches.
A polar adventure beckons In 2011 I was presented with a unique opportunity from the High Fives Foundation. In an effort to build awareness for adaptive athletes, a cross-county ski trek across the South Pole was being organized in conjunction with Ice Axe Expeditions. Would I like to be High Fives’ representative?
I said yes before they could even get the question out.
The expedition (officially called The Push) would take two weeks and require me to use a sit-ski, which was basically a custom-made chair bolted to ski racks. I would be sitting in the sit-ski and pulling myself across 80 miles of snow and ice.
To train for the expedition Shawna and I once again turned to the Reformer.
We used the Reformer daily. I would sit on it with my hands in the straps, plug in my headphones and then pull myself through the polar plateau in my living room. It really was the only piece that could mimic the motion I would be doing so it became a really critical training component. On January 17, 2012 - the 100 year anniversary of the very first South Pole expedition - Shawna, my team and I completed our journey. It was less than two years after I was told I would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
NKP and another step in recovery In June of 2012 the High Fives Foundation funded a trip for the us to go to Maui and work with Pilates-based physical therapist Alejandra Monsalve at Cota Pilates.
Alejandra created a technique called Neuro Kinesthetic Pilates (NKP) which combined the exercise with her wealth of experience working with clients with all sorts of ailments and neurological disorders. You can read more about NKP in the sidebar to this story.
I was with Alejandra for a month. When I first arrived I had to walk with the support of arm crutches but by the end of the month I was walking with just a cane. It was incredible!
Opportunities and taking the next step The last year has been a whirlwind for the us. The Push sort of propelled us into the public light and our story has been profiled in newspapers and television shows across the country. I am now on the motivational speaking tour and recently published a book about my recovery.
So what’s next for us?
Our goal has always been 120 percent recovery. Think about this: In two years I’ve gone from wheelchair to walker to arm crutches to a cane. With Shawna’s support I’ve gone from not being able to feel anything from the waist down to having feeling below the knees. We’re not stopping until we see my toes wiggling at full force.