Working as an outpatient physical therapist at Kennedy Krieger’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI), I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many individuals who motivate and inspire me on a daily basis. I often try to put myself in their shoes, wondering how I would cope with a catastrophic injury such as paralysis. Although I have a hard time answering that question myself, I have encountered an individual whose strength of character sets an example of how I can only hope I would endure such a situation. That individual is 22-year-old Peter Exner.
A motor vehicle accident in December of 2009 caused spinal fractures in the thoracic and lumbar portions of Peter’s spinal column, resulting in damage to his spinal cord. This injury left him paralyzed from the waist down. In additional to the spinal cord injury, he also had other life-threatening and painful injuries such as internal bleeding, rib fractures, collapsed lungs, and both arms broken. After surgeries to stabilize his spine and arm fractures, he began the grueling process of rehabilitation.
Peter would be considered a complex case by any therapist. But he never let his numerous injuries slow him down in his recovery. Even at the beginning—before his admission to Kennedy Krieger—when he was placed in a nursing home at the age of 20, his determination never faltered. Meanwhile, even when he experienced significant and debilitating pain as a result of the nerve damage, he continued to participate in intensive physical and occupational therapy as an inpatient at the ICSCI.
After completing a two month stay as an inpatient, Peter still needed a wheelchair to get around his home and community. When I first met Peter, his bone and internal injuries had healed, but the damage affecting his spinal cord was not so easy to overcome. But Peter was more than ready to continue his recovery as an outpatient, with the ultimate goal of walking. A few days after meeting Peter, he told me a story that that continues to stick with me today.
One day when he was visiting the Baltimore Aquarium, he saw a sea turtle with only 3 fins. But even with a missing fin, the turtle moved gracefully and effortlessly through the water. At that point in his recovery, Peter had already regained significant function in his right leg, but not his left. He identified with the turtle, and it became a sort of mascot and source of inspiration for his recovery.
Because he lived out of state, Peter came to Baltimore for two weeks of intensive therapy at the ICSCI every six months. When he was home, much of the responsibility fell on him to follow through with our recommendations. There are very few patients that I’ve encountered who have followed therapy recommendations as explicitly as Peter. Each time he returned for therapy, there were improvements, and I was able to teach him how to take his recovery to the next level. Peter gladly took on each challenge. Not only did he work diligently toward his ultimate goal of walking, he pushed forward in all areas of his life, returning to driving, hanging out with friends, and to college.
It has been a year and a half since the car accident and Peter has surpassed the expectations of many. He has regained complete function in his right leg and is able to walk with a brace on his left leg and a cane for balance. He continues to recover function in his left leg. I believe that in addition to all the physical effort Peter put into his recovery, his positive attitude, determination and perseverance also had a significant contribution. Without these attributes, he would certainly not be where he is today.
The title of Peter’s blog, which I read regularly, sums it up: “The Turtle Walks.” To read Peter Exner’s blog, visit www.theturtlewalks.blogspot.com/.