BY TAL ABBADY – South Florida Sun-Sentinel
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – (KRT) – He once was a swimmer and scuba diver whose idea of a quick afternoon break was a dive in the surf. Now he sits in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the shoulders down, his hands curled in his lap.
This is the body Kevin J. Mullin was left with after an Oct. 6, 2003, swimming accident.
“I started getting scared,” said Mullin, who has regained some movement in his hands and arms. “The reality set in when my doctors began to talk to me about learning to live in a wheelchair and becoming as independent as possible. I thought there has to be an answer out there to get me out of this chair.”
He hopes he’s found that answer in Utah, where in January he’ll begin a two-year program that uses rigorous strength training and the concept of “muscle memory” to help paraplegics regain as much physical autonomy as possible.
Sitting in an electric wheelchair he powers with a small lever on a recent afternoon, Mullin spoke with dry-eyed composure about the accident he remembers as a breathless spin through water and a stark dividing line in his life.
He was swimming past breakers in the Boca Raton, Fla., area when he was sucked underwater by a wave. In what he calls “a freak accident,” Mullin’s spine was damaged when he hit either hit a sandbar or a floating object.
Afterward, he was on a Ventilator and eventually had to learn to breathe on his own.
It was Thomas Dolan, his roommate and childhood friend, who searched the Internet for answers and came up with Sit Tall-Stand Tall, run by Leighton P. Weber in Provo, Utah. According to its Web site, the program applies strength-building techniques to help spinal-cord injury victims who have not been helped by traditional Rehabilitation programs “but still refuse to accept the prognosis of spending the rest of their life in a wheelchair.”
Called “warriors,” program participants engage in a daily exercise regimen that strengthens parts of the body not paralyzed “and expanding out from there.” With rigorous training, the Web site pledges, the body activates muscle-memory patterns. Using leg braces, participants are told they re-educate their muscles to function and achieve a life independent of the wheelchair.
Mullin flew to Utah in the late summer to meet with Weber for a seven-day evaluation.
“I used muscles I hadn’t used since the accident. I completely changed my posture in this chair. I got my tricep muscles working again,” he said.
He had to learn to crawl and sit up on the floor, achievements the program claims are the first building blocks of mobility.
“It’s just like being a child all over again,” Mullin said. “Your muscles know how to do this because they’ve done it before.”
But while exercise will help both the healthy and disabled achieve better health, some say the program may be preying on a vulnerable crowd.
“People who have sustained traumatic injury are often hungry for hope,” said Patrick Jacobs, a researcher with the University of Miami’s Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Jacobs was unfamiliar with Weber’s program, but said of patients who have suffered serious spinal cord injuries, “I do not know of one case ever where resistance training was successful.”
What Jacobs did extol, however, was the program’s focus on the benefits of exercise in the rehabilitation of patients.
“It’s to be admired,” Jacobs said of any training designed to restore the body to its optimal level. Jacobs many spinal-cord injury victims often are released from hospitals after brief spells of rehabilitation therapy due to insurance constraints.
“You don’t have time to enhance your strength and endurance because you’ve got to worry about survival skills,” he said.
The happy medium between atrophying in a wheelchair and chasing the dream of being their former, able-bodied selves, Jacobs believes, is for patients is to seek a combination of therapies, including exercise, that will best address their condition and achieve a peak state of health.
In a telephone interview from his home in Provo, Leighton Weber adamantly stated he offers no one a cure.
“What I offer people is an opportunity to make a decision about the quality of their life,” he said.
Weber has been providing strength training to the disabled for nearly 25 years, now working out of a 4,400-square-foot gym attached to his home. He said he has trained people with ailments ranging from spina bifida to Multiple Sclerosis and paralysis to regain movement in their bodies. In the last few years, he has specialized in spinal cord injuries, he said.
He has 17 participants, each paying $8,500 annually for his services. Of 450 people who applied to his program this year through his Web site, he accepted four. Being wheelchair-independent does not necessarily mean walking functionally, Weber said. It can mean learning to stand on Bilateral leg braces, standing with the use of bars and other gradations of walking.
“People are afraid to get hurt. They’re afraid to go past comfort. The wheelchair is comfort. They hate it, but it’s comfort. That’s the Environment they’ve been taught to live in and I have to break that,” he said.
But Mullin is focused on the goal of one day walking again.
“It’s become my career,” Mullin said of his commitment to walk. He has set up a Web site, www.kevinjmullin.com, to seek sponsors and allow friends to track his progress. “It’s something I’m not afraid of, the whole topic of spinal cord injuries. I know I will walk again, and I want to provide assistance to others.”
© 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.