A person wearing a yellow shirt holding a red heart

National Walking Day falls on April 1st each year, but for wheelchair users the idea of learning to walk again is no joke. Being told you will never walk again is one of the more difficult things wheelchair users face. While walking again may not be a possibility for all wheelchair users, we wanted to recognize National Walking Day by highlighting a few wheelchair users who DID learn to walk again, and the resources that supported them in their journeys.

Victoria Arlen

ESPN personality and former paralympian swimmer Victoria Arlen spent a decade in a wheelchair after becoming paralyzed due to side effects from Transverse Myelitis and Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis when she was only 11 years old. The swelling in her spinal cord and brain as a result of these conditions caused her to become paralyzed from the waist down. 

She was in a vegetative state for four years before she began to move again, little by little. 

“I began coming back to life,” Arlen said. “Raw sounds became words, became sentences. A twitch of my index finger became the wave of my hand. The ability to swallow pudding eventually led to me mowing on a steak. I learned the name Justin Bieber, held my first cell phone, and learned what it meant to “poke” someone on Facebook.”

Despite medical professionals informing her that she would spend her life in a wheelchair, Arlen was determined to walk again. She began an intense swimming regimen and in 2012 competed in the London Paralympics for the United States, bringing home four medals and a world record for the 100-meter freestyle.

When she came home from the London Olympics she began working with Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center based in San Diego. She moved to Boston to be closer to her family, where doctors continued to tell her she would never walk again. She remained determined, and in 2015 Arlen and her parents opened Project Walk Boston, and she continued her quest. 

In November of 2015 she took her first step in ten years, and by March 2016 she was walking without crutches. 

“It had been six years since I ‘woke up’ and my legs had shown no life,” Arlen said. “Most doctors say if there is no improvement after two years, there will be no improvement. Still, I showed up every day, for up to six hours a day, and worked.”

Arlen continued with her intense rehabilitation program, and eventually became an ESPN television personality and advocate for people with paralysis. 

Incredibly, in 2017 she competed on the television series Dancing with the Stars, and won second place in the overall competition. Arlen didn’t just walk again – she danced

 national walking day

Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NakgPyq93JQ&feature=emb_title

 

Cole Thomas

national walking day wheelchair user

Photo from Today.com

In September 2016, Cole Thomas was in a bad car accident which left him with no feeling in his legs from the waist down. Later, in the hospital, Thomas learned he had shattered his L2 vertebra and pieces of bone were embedded in his spine. After surgery, which included inserting two rods and eight screws to stabilize his spine, doctors told him to expect that he would never walk again. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Thomas began a very intensive in-patient therapy focused on building up his upper body strength. After a month of therapy the outlook didn’t seem good. Thomas became despondent and thought that the therapy would never work.

One day, after saying a prayer over and over, Thomas discovered he could move one toe. That was the sign he needed not to give up.

After months of in-patient and out-patient therapy, Thomas was able to use parallel bars to hold himself up and “shimmy” along for a few steps. With intense, daily work over the next few months he progressed to walking with a walker with braces on his legs, to removing the braces and taking a few steps, and then finally he was able to take steps without the walker or the braces.

Seven months after doctors told him he wouldn’t walk again, he walked out of the rehabilitation program without assistance. 

“I knew I was going to have to give rehab and therapy 110 percent just like I did my job. I have to walk again no matter what,” Thomas said. “I have to be the best I could be.”

Thomas now enjoys walking his dogs and boating, and his dream is to become a physical therapist to help people like himself walk again.

 

Staying Heart Healthy in a Wheelchair

While Arden and Thomas’ stories are very inspiring, not every wheelchair user is able to walk again. National Walking Day is sponsored by the American Heart Association, as a reminder that taking care of our heart is essential for everyone, whether they are a wheelchair user or not.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, it’s important to get about 2 hours of exercise each week to keep your heart as healthy as possible. While this may seem like a big goal to someone in a wheelchair, it’s possible with exercises designed specifically for wheelchair users.

Before starting any exercise regime, it’s important to consult a physician.

Aerobic Resistance Training: A wheelchair is the perfect apparatus for doing aerobic resistance training. Focusing on pace rather than weight is a good way to get your heart rate up. By using resistance bands on your wheelchair, you can build strength in your back, chest, and core abdominal muscles while getting the aerobic exercise that is so important. For example, you can wrap the resistance band under your chair and build strength in your triceps, biceps, and shoulders. By wrapping the band around the back of your chair you can build strength in your chest and back. Wrap the band around a pole and pull it towards your body to strengthen abdominal muscles. Start slow, and gradually build the number of repetitions.  

Boxing: Cardio boxing can burn up to 200 calories in just thirty minutes, and is a fantastic aerobic exercise. Shadow boxing builds strength in your arms, core, and shoulders. For more resistance, you can use a weighted bag to further increase your heart rate and build muscles. 

Wheelchair Fitness Videos: There are many fitness videos specifically designed for wheelchair users. Build up a library of these videos to keep exercise exciting and different, and avoid burnout. Several are available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Wheelchair Yoga:  Wheelchair yoga has many benefits, including flexibility, strength training, stress reduction, and an improved mood. Yoga also improves blood flow and increases lung capacity. It also helps with learning to control breathing and builds muscle. 

Join the Thrive Community!

The Thrive Community includes many incredible and inspiring individuals with disabilities. Members are regularly sharing ways that they are living and thriving in their daily lives. 

The Thrive Community Facebook Group is a private space for any person with a disability, as well as caregivers and healthcare providers that touch their lives. Our purpose is to provide a safe, educational space for group members to ask every question, connect with their peers, and empower each other through communication and connection.

Our conversations are led by incredible individuals who themselves are living and thriving.

For more enlightening resources, information, and discussion, join the Enemeez® Thrive Community today!

 

Disclaimer: The material contained is for reference purposes only. Alliance Labs, LLC and Summit Pharmaceuticals do not assume responsibility for patient care. Consult a physician prior to use. Copyright 2020 Summit Pharmaceuticals and Alliance Labs, LLC.

 

Sources: 

  1. https://www.insider.com/dancing-with-the-stars-victoria-arlen-espn-walk-paralysis-2017-9
  2. https://www.today.com/health/after-being-paralyzed-waist-down-man-walks-again-t110751
  3. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/paguide.pdf
  4. https://welcomehome.blogs.hopkinsmedicine.org/2016/03/28/5-tips-to-better-wheelchair-exercise-for-a-healthy-heart/