Mike McNamara’s light blue-green eyes fairly glisten as he talks about walking on the USC campus this fall as a college freshman. Only two-and-a-half years ago, the possibility of him walking anywhere was in serious jeopardy due to paralysis from a spinal cord injury sustained while playing basketball during a junior varsity game at Crespi High School.
Now, thanks to the unfailing support of family members, friends, doctors and an exercise physiologist, McNamara, 18, will walk across campus aided just by a leg brace. He is ecstatic about the opportunities awaiting him as a full tuition award recipient of USC’s Swim With Mike fund, a 25-year-old scholarship program for physically challenged athletes.
‘God was with me’
On Jan. 13, 2003, McNamara experienced back pain so severe at school, he had to go home. After waking up from a nap, he discovered he couldn’t move his legs.
The Crespi sophomore JV basketball team captain and starting guard was suffering effects from an injury that had occurred during a Dec. 20 basketball game when a defender unintentionally collided with McNamara, leading to a hard fall. Torn ligaments deep in the center of his back resulted in the formation over the next few weeks of a 6-inch blood clot, which was compressing his spinal cord.
Rushed to Northridge Hospital, McNamara said he had an experience he won’t forget while heavily medicated and dozing in the intensive care unit. “All of a sudden, I went on this one path, and there was a light at the end and there were saints, plenty of saints — it was amazing to me. After that experience, I knew that God was with me. I knew things were going to get better,” he said.
Surgeons successfully removed McNamara’s blood clot and repaired the torn ligaments, but they warned the teenager that his paralysis extending from chest to feet could be permanent. Within a few weeks of his three-month hospital stay, however, McNamara gradually regained sensation in his lower body.
A milestone occurred when he discovered he could wiggle his left big toe. He next acquired movement in his left leg, but his right leg remained paralyzed. Fighting Depression and frustration about doctors’ prognosis that he might not walk again, he pushed himself around in a wheelchair with his good foot. He credits his family, parents Robert and Jeanie and fraternal twin brother Tom, with keeping his spirits up.
“When I didn’t have legs, they were my legs. When I didn’t have hope, they were my hope,” said McNamara. “I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today without their help.”
By early March, 2003, “recovering Paraplegic” McNamara had improved enough to stand and walk with the help of forearm crutches. After months of post-op physical and exercise therapy, his gait has improved so much that he can bear weight on his right foot stabilized by a discrete brace on his lower leg.
He said his personal motto since the injury is: “No one in this world can stop me but myself.”
Five days a week, McNamara drives himself in his Ford Explorer to Gold’s gym near Cal State University Northridge for corrective exercise sessions with Taylor-Kevin Isaacs, 36, a clinical exercise physiologist who works with patients recovering from spinal cord and other serious injuries.
Isaacs puts McNamara and 26-year-old recovering quadriplegic Aaron Baker through a series of stretching and weight-training exercises designed to strengthen muscles and increase mobility. McNamara’s exercises are centered around improving his balance and gait, since he still suffers from muscle tremors in his right leg and foot.
“When I started with Mike, he couldn’t stand on his own and reach forward,” said Isaacs. “Now he is reaching down for basketballs, shooting basketballs — this is cutting-edge training for recovering patients.”
In February of this year, McNamara exhibited his basketball prowess at the start of a Crespi game when he successfully shot a free throw in front of a crowd of wildly cheering spectators. His twin, a guard on the team, was at his side for the victory moment.
“It was probably one of the best moments of my life because it capped off all the work he’s done,” said Tom, who often participates with Mike during exercise therapy. Tom credits his brother for rising above fear and meeting the challenges, and setbacks, of the recovery process, which takes time and patience. “My family has become a lot tighter,” said Tom, who will enter New York’s Fordham University to study broadcast journalism this fall.
Calling her son’s injury a “strengthening experience,” Jeanie said she clung to her faith to survive the ordeal. The McNamara family has received a continual outpouring of support from fellow parishioners at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Westchester as well as from numerous Crespi families.
“We were completely overwhelmed by the support. Crespi families we didn’t know very well came to our assistance. The faculty, administrators — everyone took us in,” said Jeanie.
She appreciated Crespi basketball coach Dick Dornan’s efforts to get her son back on the court to demonstrate his free throw abilities. “It was awesome to me to see Mike take the floor after being off for so long,” said Jeanie.
“We’re so fortunate,” added husband Robert. “Even with all the bad, there’s been an even greater abundance of good.”
By Paula Doyle