Learning to Walk

I still get goosebumps. They don’t really work — their job is to warm me up, but they don’t — but I still get them. I can see them, but I can’t feel them. There’s only so much my brain can tell my body to do. There’s a roadblock. My brain sends the signal — like a cell phone tower — but most of my body doesn’t get service.

I want to restore communication to every muscle in my body. I’m talkin’ 4G LTE strength. I want my brain to get its message through. I want to walk again.

And I will.

Zero-to-five percent. Those were my chances of regaining any neurological function below the C3 and C4 vertebrae I busted up when I made that tackle four and a half years ago.

Doctors told me I’d be on a ventilator for the rest of my life. They said I’d never eat solid foods and, of course, that I’d never walk again — pretty much that I’d never live a normal life. I could have accepted that. I could have quit. But that’s not what athletes do. Being an athlete is about achieving goals nobody thought you could achieve and pushing the limit to reach heights higher than you ever imagined.

I started beating the odds right away. Five weeks after my injury, which occurred on October 16, 2010, I was off the ventilator. I was able to eat solid foods that Thanksgiving. Since then, through my rehab, I’ve been able to regain some of the movement doctors said I’d never get back. I have full range of motion in my neck. I can move my shoulders. My fingers twitch a little bit here and there. I’ve even regained feeling — not full sensation, but minimal sensation — throughout my whole body.

I can feel, but I can’t feel like you feel. If someone came up to me and touched me with a sharp or dull object or something hot or cold, I couldn’t tell the difference. But if you push on my body hard enough, I can feel the pressure of something being there. I can’t tell what it is, but I can tell something’s there, and that’s a big win for me.

I train like any other athlete. For three hours a day, three days a week, I push my body to the limit. I just have different limits. The goal isn’t to win a trophy or earn a scholarship or score a big contract. The goal is to walk again. And even though progress is slow, progress is progress, and I won’t stop grinding until I’m walking again.

With that goal in mind, there are three routines I go through in each rehab session: the Treadmill, the Mat and Shock Therapy.

The Treadmill

You know the saying “You have to learn to crawl before you learn to walk”? Well, that’s true, but you know what comes in between? Standing up.

With my injury, it’s hard for my body to be upright for long periods of time. Naturally, when you stand up, your blood drops down. You ever get up out of bed too fast and get dizzy? That’s what it’s like when they stand me up. The first time they stood me up, I had to sit down after two seconds because all the blood from my brain just dropped. I was instantly about to pass out. Gravity pulls my blood to the floor, and my brain fights to bring it back up, but it can’t get that message past my injury.

Once they do get me upright, I’m fastened into a harness to hold me up. So with my feet on the treadmill, the rest of my body is suspended in the air, like Peter Pan.

I know it sounds weird to stand a guy who can’t walk up on a treadmill, but the only way to teach your muscles to do something is to have them do it. It’s all about repetition. So while I work to balance my upper body, we fire up the treadmill and my physical therapy team moves my legs for me in a normal walking motion, trying to activate those muscles and re-teach them to do what they’re naturally supposed to do: walk.

Before I started walking on the treadmill, these muscles weren’t even working. Now, through mimicking the natural body movements of walking, these muscles have started to come back for me. They’ve started firing again. Immediately after my injury, I couldn’t even activate them.

The more I walk on that treadmill, the more muscles start coming back.

I spend an hour of each rehab session on that treadmill, and between the trainers working my leg muscles and me balancing my upper body as I would if I were walking, it’s exhausting.

The Mat

Balancing on the treadmill has helped me improve dramatically in my second exercise, which is balancing myself while sitting up.

I don’t have full postural muscles that allow me to sit straight up the way you would sit and just kinda hang there. I’m just using the muscles I got — my shoulders, back and neck — to stabilize my body to the best of my ability.

Usually after 10 minutes of sitting up, I’m done. I’m exhausted. I need to stretch it out and take a break. But after originally not being able to sit up for even two minutes, my new personal record is 17 minutes. It’s not easy — it hurts. But that’s how it is. Like any other athlete, the pain makes me stronger.

I also work my arms by bearing weight on them during sitting exercises. First, I sit without the help of my arms to work my shoulders, back and neck, and then I put my arms out to the side on the mat so I can use my arms to bear the weight to shift right to left and balance.

I’m still a big boy. My 273-pound frame is a load to balance without the luxury of abs, legs and other postural muscles. It’s definitely a workout.

Shock Therapy

The third exercise I do is a lot like the treadmill, just for my arms.

Since there’s no treadmill for the arms, instead of walking on the treadmill and having the trainers move my legs to shock and activate the muscles, they use stems to shock the muscles in my arms while they mimic natural movements, like reaching out to open a door. So the stems shock the muscles to get the muscles to activate to re-train them to do natural movements.

The voltages are crazy — higher than any human with normal sensation can take — but that’s how strong the signal from your brain is. It takes insane voltages just to get the muscles in my arms to activate and mimic the simple motions people do hundreds of times every day: lifting their arm and reaching out.
There are so many things I can do now that I couldn’t do immediately after my injury — stuff the doctors said I’d never be able to do again. And it’s because of the grinding I do every day in physical therapy. I can lean myself forward and balance myself. I can also sit myself straight back up and pull each of my arms off my legs in front of me back up onto the armrests of my chair.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve come a long way. I still have a long way to go, but I’m up for the challenge. A true athlete always is.

I’m pumped about the progress I’ve made in four and a half years since my injury, but I’m not satisfied. I’m gonna keep grinding. I’m not gonna be satisfied until I’m walking again. I still have that hunger and that desire. Like any athlete working to reach a goal, I’m game. I’m still pushing and I’m still hungry for it.

Anything’s possible. You just gotta bELieve.

Eric LeGrand is a former Rutgers defensive lineman who was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle on a kickoff return in 2010. He is the President of Team LeGrand, which is a fundraising branch of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which is dedicated to finding a cure for paralysis resulting from spinal cord injuries.

This is the first in a series of Rehab Diaries documenting Eric’s quest to walk again.