Every wiggle a big step for paralyzed coach

Published: December 9, 2010  |  Source: windsorstar.com

Mike Outram, a high-spirited and popular gymnastics coach who was paralyzed from the neck down after a Nov. 28 trampoline accident, says he is making “huge strides” toward recovery.

The 43-year-old with the heart of a kid, known as Mr. Mike to thousands of local gymnasts, was explaining Wednesday how he’d regained some movement in his left leg, and most recently had wiggled the toes on his right foot.

This latest advance came as news to his devoted sister Melynda Outram.

She was dubious because her brother often feels he is moving his limbs, when they are actually motionless. “Let’s see your toes move,” Melynda told him.

Sure enough, they moved. “Oh, there it is, it’s moving,” she marvelled. Outram, now recovering at Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital after eight days at Michigan’s Beaumont Hospital, says he’s hoping to be back to his old self.

“You don’t realize how much you take for granted until you lose it. Like, to move my toes, I have to think, focus, and do this,” he said, with a look of intense concentration on his face as the wiggling commenced.

Mike’s life took a disastrous tumble after he attempted a high-level dismount from the trampoline at a Michigan gymnastics club and landed on his head at the concrete bottom of a pit filled with foam cubes that failed to cushion him.

“I did a half-in, full-out, and I hit the bottom of the pit, which isn’t good, I’m about two inches shorter,” he joked. He said he never lost consciousness, nor his chewing gum. There he was upside down at the bottom of the pit, paralyzed, with the cubes blocking is vision, impairing his breathing and muting his calls for help. He told himself to stay calm and call again: “Help!”

It took two paramedics, six firefighters and his friends at the scene to haul him out on a spine board, feet first.

During the ordeal, Outram remembered he acted his “comical self,” asking his nieces Sarah and Alyssa if he still had his arms and legs, and his clothes.

He still can’t move his arms. He’s been told that when his head hit the concrete his backbone snapped at the third and fourth vertebrae, then sprang back to its normal position, perfectly aligned. But the spinal cord that runs within the vertebrae was severely damaged. As a result, the messages sent from the brain to his limbs get mixed up or never reach their destination. Outram thinks he’s pointing his arms toward the ceiling, when they’re resting at his side.

Though he coaches at the highest levels, works at a club in Michigan and recently opened his own club, Mr. Mike’s Gymnastics in Leamington, Outram is probably best known in Windsor for his parent-and-tot class and other recreational classes at Oakwood Community Centre in South Windsor.

“Of all people, he’s so energetic and on the go and can’t sit still, so what’s happened is so sad,” said Carolanne Smith, the city’s manager of community programs, who was a supervisor at Oakwood when she hired Outram about a dozen years ago. Most gymnastics teachers for the city’s rec programs are young and green, but here was an older man with an impressive resume, she said. “He’s a big kid. He had this enthusiasm.

“He packed his classes,” she said, recounting how more classes were added at Oakwood to accommodate the demand. “The parents absolutely loved him because he made the classes so fun. The kids would call him Mr. Mike.”

Outram recently finished writing a manual for the city’s gymnastics instructors. “We wanted to get it from his head onto paper.”

Warned at Beaumont that many people with his injuries end up on a ventilator, Outram vowed: “I will not end up on a ventilator.”

“He’s just doing everything he can,” said his mom, Betty, who said doctors at Beaumont wouldn’t provide a long-term prognosis. Right now, he’s working hard to make himself healthy enough to transfer to a spinal cord injury program in London or Toronto.

This week, someone from Beaumont called Betty and her husband Bob with the first part of the bill — US$68,000, though the hospital is offering a 40 per cent discount. The Outrams have no idea what the final tab will be, or if OHIP will pay part of it. Outram had no out-of-country medical coverage.

A trust fund for Outram has been established to accept donations at any TD Canada Trust to help with the Beaumont bills and future costs.

Outram said he’s been overwhelmed by the messages of support flooding in from his former students, parents, and people in the gymnastics world. He was encouraged by his most recent visit from a neurosurgeon at Hotel-Dieu on Tuesday.

“He had all the faith (I’d) get back to where (I) want to be.”

By Brian Cross, Windsor Star
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