McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Kendell Hall, executive director of Project Walk in Addison, Texas, works out on Jan. 9 with Ryan Bachik, spinal cord injury recover specialist. Hall was paralyzed several years ago after a car crash. "As soon as you get comfortable, get uncomfortable. You won't know your body's potential otherwise," Hall said.
DALLAS — Milestones are so relative. A mountain scaled in one person’s life could be a pebble kicked in another’s.
So when you read the colored-chalk notations on blackboards at a very atypical gym called Project Walk Dallas — Adam stood for one minute without using hands! Isaiah did 15 full sit-ups! — you’re coming face to face with life’s frailties and strengths, its steps forward and back, the minuscule movements that eventually lead us where we want to go.
At Project Walk Dallas, every client has suffered a spinal cord injury. They know the beauty and the benefit of even the smallest puzzle pieces coming together to make a picture; in this case, one of carefully guarded optimism. Thus, the chalkboard notations.
“Sometimes you get so wrapped up in the grand scheme of recovery that you overlook smaller things which are huge milestones for someone in our situation,” said Kendell Hall, the nonprofit organization’s executive director.
Yes, she said “our situation,” because when she’s not being an administrator, Kendell’s a client, working out two hours a day, five days a week. A car accident in late 2009 left her unable to walk, to snap her fingers, to bathe herself, to roll over in bed.
Some of those she can do now; some she can’t. She’s able to stand but not to walk. Maybe one day she’ll take steps unaided, or maybe she won’t. A realist, she’s also unfailingly optimistic.
“Definitely there are periods when I think, ‘Will this ever happen for me?’” said Hall, 32. “But honestly, I can’t think like that. It’s not like I’m being ‘I’m-going-to-walk-again-I’m-going-to-walk-again!’ But I’m not going to let go of the idea.”
She doesn’t dwell on the yesterdays when she could walk and run and live independently. Nor does she relive the Halloween night when she was a passenger in a car being driven too fast by someone she hardly knew, whose reckless driving caused the accident that severed 85 percent of her spinal cord.
Instead, she says, from the beginning, “I wanted to focus every bit of energy on recovery, on getting better.”
She spent 2½ weeks in the intensive care unit of Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and then had almost three months of inpatient rehab. When the time came to go home — to her parents’ house, where she still lives — and she wasn’t walking or doing what she considered to be enough, she thought, “There has to be more.”
Research led her to Project Walk Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center in Carlsbad, Calif. The organization operates on the belief that through repetition and constant movement, the body can find ways other than the injured spinal cord to transmit information to the brain.
Through continuous movement, she explains, “There’s evidence the brain is able to recapture and show functional movement that didn’t exist before.”
Dr. Ken Adams of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas hadn’t heard of Project Walk Dallas before now. But as medical director of inpatient rehab, he is familiar with long-term neurological rehabilitation. He explains what’s happening this way:
“Think about a subway system like New York City,” Adams says. “A track is damaged, but because it’s all so interwoven, there’s probably a 100 percent chance of another way to get to that station, but it requires four different stops to get there.”
The concept that nerves can regenerate is called neuroplasticity.
While it is far from being accepted as mainstream, Adams says that over the past five or 10 years, “it’s beginning to have a place in science rather than mythology.”
After 18 months in California — about 16 more than Hall had thought she’d need there — she’d regained significant strength in her upper body and learned to stand and to control her legs. Friends had raised $150,000; her care, including housing, food and other expenses, totaled $7,000 a month.
Inspired by her own transformation, she was determined to open a Project Walk in Dallas. Using money left from her friends’ fundraising, she raised the rest that she needed on her own.
Project Walk Dallas opened in May 2011, 10 months after Hall returned home. Two of her California trainers now work there, as do four other trainers she’s hired. They’re not physical therapists; instead, they have undergraduate and-or master’s degrees in kinesiology or exercise science.
“We don’t want it to seem like you’re going to rehab,” she says. “We want trainers to be fit, to have music piping. We want this to feel like a gym.”
So unlike traditional therapy focused on parts of the body that do work, Project Walk works every muscle.
“Keep pounding, keep pounding, keep pounding,” she said. “Try to get movement.”
Physical benefits are only the beginning. “Gaining self-confidence is the best you get out of Project Walk,” she said. “There are a lot of things people don’t realize. The fact you can’t move is the least of it. You lose sexual function, the ability to control bowel and bladder.”
Clients ask her questions about everyday tasks: “‘Do you mind telling how you do this or that?’” she said. “There are different ways of pulling up your pants. Learn and share. It’s more than therapy on the floor.”
She bought tickets in two suites at a Dallas Mavericks game. She’s organized happy hours for clients.
Hall said there’s no telling what will happen for each person, but all clients have seen some sort of improvement. One, who’s been in a wheelchair for three years, recently told her, “I just got into bed with my PJs on and I didn’t need my sister.”
Adams said getting to that point is “so labor intensive and takes so long that most people get frustrated.”
“I absolutely believe in what they’re doing,” he said. “I think people like Kendell, the young people, are so motivated and determined to regain function. They’re the 5 percenters, the 10 percenters, who are willing to keep going despite the slow gain.
“We’re looking for a magic pill,” he said. “Everything’s supposed to be easy. Everything is supposed to happen right away. Look at her. She’s been working three years, and she’s still not walking. I don’t know too many individuals who are willing to put forth that effort.”
Hall said she knows people who took three, five, seven years to show significant improvement, to walk.
“I’ve been injured for three years, but only with Project Walk for two. I have to continue to stay committed toward my goal. On days when I get frustrated or down, it’s like, whatever. Look forward. Keep on trying.”