Spinal patient spins a comeback

Published: April 13, 2009  |  Source: denverpost.com
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20090411-1Therapy “a 24/7 job”: Ten years after a skiing accident, Leah Potts stays driven.

Ten years ago, Leah Potts was a patient at Craig Hospital, after a skiing accident that broke her neck and damaged her spinal cord. The first doctors she saw warned her she might never walk again.

Today, Potts teaches Spinning, the popular and intense indoor group bicycling class. The Aspen resident can walk (with a cane). She skis again (with outriggers). And she blogs about her progress at leahpotts.com.

“I remember lying there in bed at the beginning,” she said. “I remember lying there thinking, ‘OK, this doesn’t sound too good. I have two choices: Lie here and cry about it, or get up and do something about it.’ I was 23 years old. I’d just graduated from college. I felt like my life was just beginning.”

When she left Craig Hospital after three months, Potts relied on a walker or a wheelchair to get around. Using the walker was exhausting. It took all her energy to move from the front door to her living-room sofa. She had to rest before getting up again to go to the next room.

Reclaiming her body became Potts’ full-time job. She spent at least three hours a day in rehabilitation treatment, sticking to a grueling schedule that later cost her her short marriage to Dan Roland.

Leah Potts, who suffered a spinal-cord injury 10 years ago, now instructs a Spinning class.  (Diane Moore, Special to The Denver Post)
Leah Potts, who suffered a spinal-cord injury 10 years ago, now instructs a Spinning class. (Diane Moore, Special to The Denver Post)

“I thought I had to do it on my own, and it turned out to be the best thing I could’ve done,” she said recently. “I had an acupuncturist who told me, ‘Your body is like your house. If the window breaks and you don’t fix it, or the roof leaks and you don’t fix it, who’d want to move in?’ It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fun. I’d cry. It’s still hard. But it’s harder not to do anything, and it gets easier.”

For a while, she lived in Kansas City, Mo., working with a personal trainer who volunteered his time when he heard her story. She got strong enough to give up the wheelchair, using the walker to get from her home to the gym.

In time, Potts returned to Aspen. She enrolled in a Spinning class and, three years ago, began teaching the
group cycling workouts. That’s how Diane Moore met her.

“She was a powerhouse,” said Moore, an Aspen photographer who quickly became friends with Potts.

Intense first workout

Moore still remembers the first workout — a hard climb that stayed intense for a full 60 minutes.

“I was really surprised when she got off the bike, picked up her cane and began working her way across the room,” Moore said. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized that Potts was anything but able-bodied.

When Craig Hospital doctors hear stories like that, they are unsurprised.

“Our policy here is ‘Never say never,’ because frankly, we don’t know, and we always want to encourage people to have hope for the future — especially people with incomplete injuries,” said Craig spokesman Kenny Hosack. “Think of an incomplete injury as being like an electrical cord the size of your pinkie, with 4 million tracks running through it. If it’s completely severed, there’s no neurological signal getting from the brain to the body. About 55 percent of our patients are incomplete injuries, and there’s motor or sensory to varying degrees. Meaning, they can feel or move.”

Potts performs rehab with her physical therapist, Pam Seidler. (Diane Moore, Special to The Denver Post)
Potts performs rehab with her physical therapist, Pam Seidler. (Diane Moore, Special to The Denver Post)

Last year, after some community fundraisers, Potts made two trips to India. There, she received human embryonic stem-cell transplants currently unavailable in the United States because of moral and legal controversies.

Potts credits her improvement, in part, to the transplants.

“It’s a rather large job, difficult and time consuming; teaching these stem cells what they’re supposed to do,” she wrote in a January blog post, “and to overcome atrophied muscles after 10 years of immobility. However, with persistence, dedication and patience day in and day out, changes do come. With the stem-cell treatments the return comes faster. I’m seeing improved range of motion, new strength and stability in smaller muscles with less tightness throughout my body.”

Potts hopes for at least one more stem-cell transplant, an expense she calculates to be about $75,000. Another Aspen fundraiser will be held Saturday at the Aspen Athletic Club: a 12-hour Spin-a-Thon, with various instructors, including Potts, leading hour- long workouts.

“The treatments are a roller coaster,” Potts said. “You’re excited about what could be, in a good way — and in a bad way. Therapy has turned into a 2 4/7 job for me. I do three hours of work every day — yoga, tai chi, Pilates, physical therapy, biofeedback, massage, acupuncture. Fundraising, talking about it, healing and just dealing with it is a full-time job.”

It literally is her full-time job. She supports herself through her blog, where she solicits donations and writes in detail about her treatments, personal life, emotions as well as her physical activities.

Has her dedicated physical therapy sped her recovery? Though no scientific literature suggests that it does, Craig spokesman Hosack observed that patients who fully commit themselves to physical therapy often “experience more neurological recovery” than those who don’t.

“Those who do work hard in neurological recovery tend to do better in life,” Hosack said. “Ninety-five percent of our athletes go back to being athletes, regardless of what injury they’ve had. Their athletic background helps them in rehab. So does their work ethic and tolerance for pain.”

Leah Potts, who suffered a spinal-cord injury 10 years ago, now instructs a Spinning class. (Diane Moore, Special to The Denver Post)
Leah Potts, who suffered a spinal-cord injury 10 years ago, now instructs a Spinning class. (Diane Moore, Special to The Denver Post)

By Claire Martin
The Denver Post