Simple Steps

Last Monday was a big day in the life of one of my patients: He graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) with a degree in political science. His parents and siblings were there to applaud as he accepted his diploma and turned his tassel. It was an experience that thousands of college students will have this month, but for Matt Courson, this already special day was momentous. 

Before a crowd of thousands, Matt lifted himself from his wheelchair and traveled across the stage on his own two feet with the help of a walker and leg braces. It wasn’t the first time he had walked since a spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the chest down (our team in the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury has been working hard on this with Matt in therapy), but it marked the realization of a goal that others had told Matt would never happen.

CNN was even on hand to cover the momentous walk; You can watch their story here.

For me, Matt is a constant reminder that we should strike the word “impossible” from our vocabulary. Born and raised in Arkansas, he was excelling as a star pitcher for the University of Arkansas baseball team when a ride on a four-wheeler forever changed the trajectory of his life. Riding alone when the ATV went off an embankment, Matt survived a night outside before he was rescued. After his surgery, when doctors told him there was a 99 percent chance that he would never walk again, all Matt heard was that there was a 1 percent chance that he would.

After Matt traveled to Kennedy Krieger from Arkansas a few times for short-term bouts of activity-based restorative therapy, he made a remarkable decision. He decided to relocate to downtown Baltimore and transfer to UMBC so that he could dedicate himself to his recovery. Matt’s decision to leave his family and friends and move alone to an unknown city, despite his limited mobility, was a dramatic illustration to me of how much our work at Kennedy Krieger matters to the patients and families that we serve.

Like Matt, the majority of our patients with spinal cord injuries have been told elsewhere that their chances for recovery are virtually non-existent. But our research and experience with patients shows us that novel therapies, combining patterned activity and functional electrical stimulation, can stimulate recovery of function. For some patients, it might be regaining the ability to brush their own teeth or feed themselves independently. For others, it might be taking those precious steps across a stage to graduate from college.

I talk about therapy in a way similar to how I might approach a medication: I prescribe a dosage and adjust it based on the results. But Matt added a few more ingredients to the mix: hope, faith, and incredible discipline. For the past few years, while still working toward his degree, Matt also spent endless hours in therapy and working out on his own–often averaging between 15 to 20 hours a week. He pushed himself beyond his own limits, and his body rewarded him. I know that Matt says we gave him hope, but he gave it to me as well, reminding me daily why we push forward to find a cure to help everyone with a spinal cord injury find their feet again.

In a blog that he contributed to CNN about his graduation, Matt wrote, “I proclaimed to the world that ‘Nothing is impossible.’ I made this proclamation, not with words, but with a few simple steps.” But I think we all know that those steps he took were anything but simple.

Congratulations Matt! I can’t wait to see what you will do next.

Dr. Cristina Sadowsky is the Medical Director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

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