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I’m going to walk again

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16-year-old who woke up paralyzed hasn’t lost his will or his faith

Zack Murphy got a necktie not long before Father’s Day this year, an old tie with a dated design.

It was perfect.

He hopped aboard his new riding mower, wrapped the tie around his thighs and made a knot that was more full Nelson than half Windsor.

He said thank you and he meant it — partly because he was grateful for a way to keep his stricken legs from flopping around as he gunned the mower around his backyard in Goshen, Ky.

And partly because he is only 16, has no children and is not yet conditioned to recoil at the sight of a cravat on the third Sunday in June.

But Zack appreciates a lot of things that other guys don’t, like mowing the lawn, a simple pleasure that for him is no longer a simple chore.

Four months ago, Zack woke at dawn to discover that he couldn’t move a muscle from the chest down.


Doctors say he suffered a spinal cord stroke, but Zack doesn’t believe it. They say he will never walk again. Zack doesn’t believe that either.

Zack believes in God. He always has, but in the hospital, after his doctor broke the dreadful news, he believed even more.

Shirley Murphy, Zack’s mother, remembers March 5, Zack’s first day in the hospital, like she remembers her own name.

“It was dark and we were trying to get some sleep,” she said. “Zack said, ‘I know I should be scared to death, but I don’t feel afraid. As soon as the doctor told me I would never walk again, I just felt this calmness and peacefulness come over me. I know in my heart that I’m going to walk again — but I think it’s going to be a while.'”

The paralysis that results from a spinal cord stroke is believed to be irreversible. The condition is so rare that it is not even among the 1,100 diseases listed in the National Organization for Rare Disorders database.

The doctor in charge of Zack’s rehab is Dr. Ethel LaRosa. Of the 11 doctors in LaRosa’s practice, only one had seen a spinal cord stroke before. He’s been practicing for 27 years.

Zack’s case is the rarest of the rare. Most spinal cord strokes are caused by injury or surgical complications. Zack’s was “spontaneous,” LaRosa said. “No cause has been discovered in any of his workups.”

Though the condition is unusual and the cause unknown, its modus operandi is relatively uncomplicated. A blood clot forms in or around the spinal cord and suffocates the surrounding cells. Those cells do not regenerate, which leaves a dead spot on the cord that stops nerve signals from being transmitted to the brain.

Zack’s MRI shows evidence of strokes in two Thoracic vertebral segments. He has no control of the muscles below his sternum. Or does he?

Two weeks ago, after going 3½ months with no Motor function in his lower extremities, Zack discovered that he could wiggle the second toe of his left foot and the big toe of his right foot. The family was ecstatic.

LaRosa was pleasantly but cautiously surprised. She has yet to find a case study in which a spinal cord stroke victim completely recovered.

“It’s promising, but his prognosis for walking is still guarded,” said LaRosa, a pediatric Physiatrist at Frazier Rehab Center. “It’s a cross-your-fingers kind of thing.”

Zack subscribes to the old saw that says, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

“Zack is just an amazing kid,” LaRosa said. “He’s one of the most motivated, mature teenagers I’ve ever met. This guy worked hard. Never missed a beat, never complained.”

A series of small improvements have kept Zack going.

Last month, he regained some sensation in his lower body. He can feel a breeze on his back. He can close his eyes and tell his mom whether she is touching his calf or his thigh.

Three weeks ago, when a therapist asked Zack to squeeze his legs together, a machine recorded a trace of activity in his abductor muscles. Ever so slightly, they responded to his command.

Zack also experiences spasms in his leg muscles, a common occurrence in paraplegics but one that Zack considers a good sign. Out of the blue, his legs will start violently shaking themselves, as if trying to wake from a long, deep sleep. It’s a strange and disturbing sight to visitors but a welcome, though often painful, experience for Zack.

The legs shook and Zack grinned. “That’s good stuff there,” he said.

Zack owns the bright, white, innocent smile of an orthodontically improved choirboy. He uses it all the time, which amazes everyone he meets.

“I don’t know how he stays as upbeat as he does,” said Zack’s good friend, Tyler Gooch, who like Zack is a 16-year-old sophomore at North Oldham County High School. “I just try to match his upbeatness, if that’s a word.”

People who suffer serious spinal cord injuries often plunge into a deep Depression. Winston Churchill called his depression “the black dog.” Zack seems immune to the beast’s awful bite.

He gets blue at times and frustrated but never lets those emotions take root for long.

“I wake up some days and think, ‘This sucks. Why did this happen to me?'” Zack said. “But I get over it because I know that feeling that way is only going to hurt my recovery.”

Until March 5, the only recovery Zack ever thought about was the kind he has to make after hitting a bad shot on the golf course.

On Saturday, Feb. 28, Zack and his father, Mike, ran 4½ miles through Seneca Park to prepare for the Mini-Marathon. On Tuesday, March 2, Zack played nine holes of golf at Nevel Meade.

“I shot a 49, which isn’t very good but I was satisfied because I had a gimp leg,” Zack said. “I could only drive it about 200 yards because if I leaned too hard on that leg, I would fall over.”

Zack had felt a slow tingling around his waist since early February. By early March, the sensation had moved into his left leg. Zack saw a doctor who blamed the trouble on a pinched nerve, prescribed some muscle relaxers and told Zack to take it easy.

No one was terribly worried. Zack was even cleared to fly to Florida that Friday and join his father, a regional sales manager, for a family vacation. But by Thursday, March 4, Zack’s left leg had grown so weak that he fell flat on the ground when he tried to get out of his chair.

A rough night lay ahead.

Zack could feel his toes but couldn’t move them. His bladder grew hypersensitive and told him he had to go when he didn’t. Then the hypersensitivity moved to his legs.

“Anything that touched them hurt like pins and needles,” he said. “I had to lay flat on my back with no covers. It’s like I could feel the hair follicles moving and that hurt even more.”

Zack and his mom whipsawed between feeling alarmed and reassured. Everyone they called said Zack’s symptoms were consistent with a pinched nerve.

“We would freak out, then we would call somebody and they would calm us down,” Zack said. “Then we’d freak out some more and call somebody else and they would calm us down again.”

When Shirley Murphy woke at 6 a.m. that Friday, she still hoped to make the flight to Florida. Surely Zack had improved overnight.

When she discovered that Zack couldn’t move his lower body, she called an ambulance — not because she thought it was a siren-wailing emergency but because she could think of no other way to wrestle her 5-foot-10, 170-pound son out of bed and into her Honda Civic.

“The thought of paralysis never entered my mind,” said Shirley Murphy, who is co-publisher of Kentuckiana Family magazine. “We’re talking about a healthy 16-year-old boy here. We just thought, ‘Wow, he’s got a really serious pinched nerve. He’s probably going to have to have surgery on this soon.’

“When we got him to Kosair Children’s Hospital, they said it would be hours, maybe even the next day, before they could get him an MRI. We knew we were in trouble when they came back 15 minutes later and said, ‘He’s going for an MRI right now.'”

The MRI results told Zack’s neurologist, Dr. Vinay Puri, that Zack had suffered a spinal cord stroke. Because it is so rare, a parade of neurologists and neurosurgeons dropped in to examine Zach the next day.

By Sunday, the majority believed Zach’s paralysis was caused by a more common condition called transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord.

Further tests eventually confirmed Puri’s original diagnosis, but Zack remains unconvinced.

“I really don’t believe it was a stroke at all,” he said. “Everything I’ve read about a spinal cord stroke says that it happens very fast and is very painful. None of those symptoms match up to mine.”

The inconsistencies Zack has noted and the improvements he has seen give him hope to go with his faith — a faith that survived what a shell-shocked kid might in hindsight construe as a cruelly answered prayer.

“You become a teenager and there’s a lot of stuff out there, and you stop thinking about God so much,” Zack said. “I kept feeling like I was getting further and further away from Him. So I prayed to God, ‘God, please do something to get me get back on track.’ Well, if I had known He was going do this, I would never have said that.”

Zack smiled. He doesn’t blame God for the fact that he is spending the summer of his 16th year in a wheelchair instead of a pickup truck.

Or that his parents have been hit by a blizzard of bills for doctors, therapists, hospitals, special wheelchairs, special exercise equipment and a refurbished basement with an extra-large bathroom.

Or that his mowing business, which he and his buddy, Michael Hensley, hope to parlay into a full-time landscaping service after high school, has lost clients because Michael can’t mow every yard by himself.

He complains so little but has lost so much.

Zack was not the stereotypical teen couch potato. He rarely played video games or surfed the Internet. He played basketball instead, on his backyard goal and on North Oldham’s freshman basketball team. And he played golf, three or four times a week, weather permitting.

He ran for miles and toiled for hours in the hot summer sun — and enjoyed it.

“Weekends are the hardest,” Zack said. “You know all your friends are running around out there, having a good time, playing golf or swimming or whatever.

“This has made me realize how much I took my legs for granted. I used to run around playing all kinds of sports and not even think about my legs. Then all of the sudden they just don’t work.”

As bad as things are, Zack knows they could be worse. His prognosis is pretty good, all things considered.

“Zachary will be independent from a wheelchair level,” LaRosa said. “He’ll be able to go to college and have a family and have a job and all of that good stuff. But, of course, we still hope for the best scenario.”

Zack spent 40 days at Kosair Children’s Hospital. Each day brought as much relief as pain. Zack was there to rehabilitate. Some kids were there to die.

One of Zack’s friends, a boy who loved to play video games, was paralyzed from the neck down.

“I’m blessed,” Zack said. “I still have my hands. At least I can still play guitar and video games and get on the computer.”

Zack wants more than that. He is convinced that God does not intend for him to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He is convinced that God won’t let him down in the end because He hasn’t let him down so far.

“Every time I would almost get scared or start to feel hopeless,” Zack said, “He has done something or sent somebody to be there and comfort me and get me through it.”

In the hospital, it was the army of friends and family who spared him the shortcomings of institutional dining by bringing him every lunch and every dinner.

At rehab, it was a therapist who buoyed Zack’s spirits by telling him she’d been paralyzed as a 12-year-old but was walking again within a year.

At home it was the 40-odd schoolmates, teachers, friends and neighbors who braved an April shower of cold sleet to stand in the driveway and welcome him home.

It was Tyler Gooch borrowing his grandfather’s wheelchair so he could play basketball with Zack on even terms.

It was Bob Russell, the busy pastor of Southeast Christian Church, where the Murphys have belonged for nine years, calling with encouraging words — left on Zack’s answering machine because heaven knows 10:30 a.m. is too early for any self-respecting teen to be sufficiently awake to answer the phone.

It was the bankers and firefighters and lawn-mower dealers who raised money and cut sweetheart deals. Most of all, it was the strength, love and fierce family unity of his mom, dad and 13-year-old sister, Caitlin.

All of these people, and Zack himself, have worked overtime trying to wring something good out of something bad.

“All of the sudden you wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why my son?'” Shirley Murphy said. “But why should it happen to anyone?”

To help:

Caring for a Paraplegic is endlessly expensive. Even good health insurance coverage doesn’t cover the cost of all medical care, much less the costs related to refurbishing a home to make it wheelchair-accessible.

Republic Bank has established a special account to handle donations from people who’d like to help the Murphy family. Contributions should be mailed to: Fund to Benefit Zack Murphy, Republic Bank and Trust, 9101 U.S.42, Prospect, KY 40059.

The Courier-Journal

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