A Valentine for My Gym

Greetings, internet! I was supposed to write this post back in July, because that would have marked my ten-year anniversary at Push to Walk, my gym. Now that it’s February and this post is way overdue, however, we’re just going to call Push to Walk my Valentine. And every Valentine deserves a love letter.

Dear Push to Walk,

You’ll have to forgive me, because the last time I wrote a letter declaring my undying affection for someone, I was fifteen, so I’m a bit out of practice.

I remember right before we met, I went to Kessler for an appointment because they had this thing called the NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) Program. I was over a year post-injury, had just finished the nightmare that was my senior year of high school, and was hopeful that I could find a place in a program that could give me hope and some nerve function. After all, NeuroRecovery is in the name.

As my parents and I would come to learn, the NRN program wasn’t looking for someone like me. One of their doctors examined me and said that I “lacked active movement” in my legs. “Well, of course,” I thought, “That’s why I’m here.” I remember pleading with the doctor, as if I was in a movie where begging and promising to work hard would earn me a spot. It always works in the movies, so surely it should work in real life, right?

Well, goshdarnit, the movies lied to me.

Nothing happened when I said I’d work my ass off. The doctor seemed unphased by my voice cracking, my eyes tearing up like I was reenacting a Taylor Swift breakup music video, and did I mention how much I pleaded? My mom drove me home that day, saying it was such a hassle to get there anyway, so this was probably for the best. (Although we both knew that if something was worth it, she’d drive there everyday.)

Cue a lovely person at Restorative Therapies (the company that makes my FES cycle), who told my parents about a gym for people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological issues that opened recently in northern Jersey. I didn’t want to deal with more heartbreak, but sure, why not give this a go.

One Saturday in July 2009, my parents and I drove into a parking lot that had only two other cars. The gym had multiple pieces of equipment that you’d see in a regular gym, but with some added touches for adaptability. There were also some FES devices, a contraption to lift a harness, tables, large boxes, and a bar you’d typically see in a ballet studio. I don’t believe in sparks flying or love at first sight, but this place felt like a warm hug.

When I was first injured, I was told that whatever I regained after the first two years was everything I would ever get back, the bulk of which would happen during the first six months. I would later learn that this was a lie. Or at least, it was misinformation that easily could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously, if someone gives up after two years, they’re not getting anything else back. But hey, you already knew that, because you were there when I regained some core strength, some of my hip function, and hella sensation/proprioception in my legs, much of it two years post-injury.

Years later, the (re)gains continue. [Video credit goes to my Mom]

July 24, 2012

 

December 28, 2012

 

December 26, 2013

 

June 16, 2014

 

August 23, 2014

 

December 19, 2015

 

June 11, 2016

 

January 12, 2017

 

August 25, 2018

Lack of active movement, my ass.

See, apart from being a facility with adaptive equipment and a philosophy that everyone should be active (regardless of ability), you also have some of the most wonderful people.

Mike was the first trainer I ever worked with (or as he called himself, “the new guy,” and would later be known, “the Greek Mystique”). He rooted for the Yankees and the Jets, and enjoyed talking about junk food. We got along great (note: I switched over to the Mets at some point in college – sorry, Mike). During my first workout, Mike explained to me and my parents what each exercise and piece of equipment was meant to do. On my second day of working with Mike, he told me to remove the abdominal binder I had been wearing everyday for the past year. I thought I needed it to keep my blood pressure up, and I was worried that without it, I would have a most unflattering quad belly. Since then, my core has only gotten stronger. Good call, Greek Mystique. 

Years later, Mike left. It had something to do with becoming a physical therapist. Whatever, I wasn’t sad or anything. I’m kidding, I did a terrible job of not crying when he broke the news to me. Mike treated me like I was there for a workout, and I had such disdain for traditional physical therapy that I couldn’t believe at that time that someone would want to do PT as a profession.

Fortunately, you hired a bunch of trainers and aides before Mike left. They’re the sort of people who, when filling out an evaluation and asking about my goals, don’t bat an eye when I say that my long-term goal is world domination. They put up with my hatred of country and BPM radio stations (and I have subjected them to far too many of my not-quite-ready-yet Spotify playlists). They know who my friends are based on location names alone (heck, a trainer and an aide are trying to get one of my friends to judge their identical cars next month). They recommend shows and I watch probably 75% of them (long live the Arrowverse and Outlander). They know what to say to piss me off so that I punch harder when I box. They ask delightful trivia questions, tell the punniest dad jokes, educate me about the complex web of details known as a wedding plan, tell me about their kids, and share their fantasy football strategies and go-to karaoke songs (all the while, kicking my ass).

Tommy Mohawk
Several years later, we’re both in the process of getting PhDs.

They listen. I really cannot stress the listening enough. Listening is the difference between hiding from a physical therapist (true story) and looking forward to a workout.

Also, we plank together.

Planking with Chris
The aftermath of getting your trainer to be your plank buddy. #sorrynotsorry

Long live Plank-Day Tuesdays! But in all seriousness, I was not a fan of the goals of traditional physical therapy, even if they objectively are practical in the long run. Traditional PT wants you to live independently following an SCI, which means learning how to do wheelchair transfers (e.g. chair to bed, floor to chair), pop wheelies, and do a tricep dip in your chair to alleviate the pressure on your butt from sitting for too long. It’s not meant to help those with SCIs regain nerve function; it’s to help those with SCIs rejoin society and make the best of a tricky situation as quickly as possible (because insurance can and will cut you off as soon as they can). When I did traditional PT and couldn’t do a wheelchair transfer, I felt as though there was something wrong with me and felt inadequate (I’m serious, I once hid in a psychologist’s office to get out of a physical therapy session).

You, on the other hand, have never made me feel inadequate. I mean, sure, there are days when I have a subpar workout, but that’s just how workouts are. When I ran cross-country, not every practice was good.

But after my first year with you, I was able to go to college with the confidence that I’d be able to live on my own. And would you believe it, I got better at transfers because my core strength and balance improved in that year. Currently, I am able to drunk-transfer successfully onto and off of my couch. I mean, over the past decade or so I’ve become capable of more than doing drunk transfers, but let it be known that drunk-transferring is an underrated and important skill.

Thanks for the past 10.5 years of workouts, and for giving me hope when I desperately needed it. I’m sorry I missed our ten-year anniversary, but I hope this Valentine makes up for it. You guys might be in northern Jersey, but you’re worth the drive. Here’s to many more sessions where you kick my ass.

Love,

Val

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