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From his toes, a message of hope

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Michael Straight sat in bed Tuesday evening and looked at his toes.

They were moving.

It was a seemingly insignificant achievement, but one that had the young jockey hollering for his parents, phoning his brother and spreading the good news to anybody else who would listen.

“It’s so exciting,” Straight said. “I’d just told my brother, ‘Listen, one of these days I’m going to put my feet on the ground and walk.’ About a minute later, I just glanced at my feet and my toes were moving.”

Those toes, in motion for the first time since Aug. 26, 2009 — the day Straight suffered serious injuries in a racing accident at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill. — indicated that a circuit from the rider’s brain was still connected to limbs that had been motionless since his spill. And that tiny gesture bolstered his spirits with impeccable timing.

The past four months haven’t been easy for Straight or his family, East Greenbush natives who relocated to Florida on Dec. 17. His parents, Sandy and Beth, found a rental house, but are still attempting to sell their home near the Hudson while on sick leave with half-pay from their jobs with the New York State Department of Labor. His twin brother, Matthew, also a jockey, decided to ride at Tampa Bay Downs, a track three hours from Jacksonville where the winter competition is extremely tough.

Those were sacrifices made after Michael, just 24 years old and at the start of an exciting new career, fractured four vertebrae and suffered serious trauma to his spinal cord when a horse he was riding fell and tossed him to the track. Even after doctors performed emergency surgery and inserted a flexible rod to stabilize his spine, his prognosis remained grim. Without feeling in his lower extremities, he headed for Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, leaving behind doctors at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago who wondered if he’d ever walk again.

“The doctor in Chicago didn’t give me much hope. But when I came down here, Dr. Johns said, ‘You have to be an outpatient, you have to keep your legs moving and work on this,'” Straight said. “His last words to me were, ‘Mike, you have a lot of potential to walk again.'”

Like many jockeys, Straight did not have private health insurance at the time of his injury. Sandy Straight said processing has been slow with AIG, provider of the $1 million on-track insurance policy and the $50,000 rehab allowance carried by Churchill Downs Inc., the parent company of Arlington Park.

“They’re still trying to figure out if we reached the cap,” he said, “so a lot of things are on hold.”

Those things include a specialized wheelchair ordered in Chicago, still pending approval from the insurance company. But thanks to a Community Health program at Brooks that funds therapy for the uninsured, Straight will start rehab today.

“An athletic, motivated guy like Michael is the perfect candidate for our program,” said Dr. Jeff Johns, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Center of Excellence at Brooks. “He has so much going for him; he’s healthy, has a strong support system, and is physically ready to start aggressive rehab.”

Johns said the movement of Straight’s toes is a positive sign when coupled with the other sensations he’s been experiencing: leg spasms and tingling below the knees.

“I don’t know how much value to place on the movements at this point, but we’ll see if and when he’s able to repeat them and if so how much,” the doctor said. “Hopefully this is a very good sign of an active phase of neurological improvement.”

“From the day he went into the hospital until now, he’s made a tremendous recovery,” said Matthew Straight. “Every day it’s something new. I’m pleased with the progress he’s made thus far mentally and physically, and through this all, we’ve never given up.”

By CLAIRE NOVAK, Special to the Times Union
Claire Novak is a freelance writer.

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