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People with spinal injuries get help at Project Walk

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The rigorous exercise program helps patients regain some mobility and confidence

BEAVERTON — A new Beaverton business uses exercise to help clients with spinal-cord injuries regain movement and improve their overall health.

Project Walk, which opened in June, is the only program of its kind in Oregon to provide intensive exercise-based programs to help patients with spinal cord injuries recover Motor skills, said JJ Fowler, 36, the lead specialist and a certified spinal cord injury recovery specialist at the Beaverton-based gym.

The business has operated for seven years in Carlsbad, Calif., where scores of people have worked with trainers. Many of those clients were from the Pacific Northwest, Fowler said. When the company decided to expand, it was logical to move into the Portland region, he said.

In a high-ceilinged space filled with mats, tables and exercise apparatus, Fowler and two apprentices work to strengthen and move the limbs of nine disabled clients a week.

“The short-term goal for our clients is to get them less dependent and increase their quality of life,” Fowler said. “The long term goal is to get them to walk.”

Researchers at the University of California at Irvine are studying the effects of intense exercise on motor function, Fowler said.

At Project Walk, an exercise regimen is tailored to each client. Fowler says people do regain some movement over time.

“Everybody’s body is different, he said. “I’ve seen people go from no movement to walking out the door in two years.”

That kind of result is rare, Fowler said. But most people see some improvement.

Fowler likens spinal injuries to the static from a radio station that is not quite tuned in. When the spine is injured, signals to the Central Nervous System are blocked or disrupted. They must be rerouted around the injured area until the signals become clear again and controlled body movement slowly returns.

Life skills relearned

Immediately after the injury, physicians, therapists and Rehabilitation experts help the patient recover from the trauma. They then teach him life skills, such as how to eat and dress and live with the abilities he has left, Fowler said.

Project Walk then focuses on restoring a patient’s health, fitness and movement. The way to do that is through thousands of repetitions and exercise, Fowler said. He also uses goal-setting and visualization techniques to help his patients.

Regular exercise has many benefits for people with spinal cord injuries — better fitness, lower incidence of Depression and diabetes — but it is not known how much it helps to improve motor function, said Dr. Jim Chesnutt, a sports medicine and family physician at the Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation Clinic at Oregon Health & Science University.

Exercise helps strengthen the function of nerves around the injured area, which could restore movement, Chesnutt said, but it’s not known if the injured nerves will get better.

“We are finding all the time that things do regenerate, so that’s promising,” Chesnutt said. “Right now we know that exercise wouldn’t hurt and it should help. But even if that specific nerve doesn’t get better, the overall fitness level will improve and the person will feel better.”

Still, for many it’s not economically feasible to participate in such an intensive exercise program, he said.

Project Walk clients pay $100 an hour or as much as $2,400 a month for the recommended three, two-hour sessions weekly of individualized training. Insurance rarely covers the costs.

A few scholarships

To offset some of the costs, Project Walk offers a few scholarships and the staff and clients organize fundraisers.

The company also has applied for nonprofit status, which could ultimately change the fee structure, Fowler said. For now, clients who want to participate have to find a way to pay.

“Spine injuries are not a poor man’s problem,” said Jennifer Fortish, 24, of Vancouver. Her husband, Dan Fortish, was paralyzed from the chest down after an accident on a water slide during their honeymoon three years ago. The couple relies on donations and her income as a stylist to help pay for his weekly training.

Finding the money is stressful, said Ellie Steele, 21, of Beaverton. Injured in a car accident two years ago, Steele works with Fowler two hours a week and would like to do more if he could raise the money.

The training, Steele said, is not only helping him to strengthen his paralyzed lower body and improving his fitness, but it’s also helping him remain optimistic that one day he’ll have use of his legs again, Steele said.

It’s all part of the healing, Fowler said.

“If they don’t find a place where they can move their body or find someone that can help them move their bodies, there will be a faster decline.”

The Oregonian

©2006 The Oregonian

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