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A Pilates Success Story

Greg arrived at my studio in pain, and in a wheelchair. Thirty years ago he broke his back during a “night jump” in Vietnam. A night jump is when a soldier jumps from a helicopter under cover of night, opens his/her parachute and blindly lands. Unable to see in the darkness, Greg hit the ground with his legs completely straight, sending a shock wave through his body, which resulted in a debilitating spinal injury.

Amazingly, after several surgeries, Greg was able to function quite well. He cycled, walked and gardened. But as the years went by, his spine began to shift, becoming so off-center it threw his entire body out of balance. This eventually caused unbelievable shooting pain, paralysis in one leg and numbness in the other. At this point he became bed-ridden.

Three years passed. During those years Greg underwent countless tests and surgeries. He saw dozens of doctors and specialists. Finally, he found an excellent physical therapist who helped him get to the point where he could sit with minimal pain for an hour or two a day. This may sound like small potatoes. But imagine how freeing it would be to spend 2 hours a day sitting upright after spending more than 3 years lying in bed!

See before/after photo

This is when I met Greg. Referred by his physical therapist, he came to me with the goal of living a more independent (and less painful) life. It was a slow and arduous process. When we started working together, Greg needed his wheelchair to move from one piece of equipment to the next. He was neither stable nor strong enough to walk even a few feet without being overwhelmed by the pain and his legs giving out. Initially, Greg’s weekly lesson was only 20 minutes long. I taught him “Pre-Pilates”–gentle strengthening and stabilizing exercises created by Joseph Pilates for people who are physically not ready to perform regular Pilates exercises. My main focus was to create more symmetry in his body, thus reducing his pain and increasing his stability and balance.

As Greg grew stronger, we increased his lessons from 20 minutes once a week to 30 minute lessons, twice a week. He began performing regular Pilates exercises, and was strong enough to use some of the equipment. The reformer was key during his workouts. Greg was able to lie down, which prevented him from becoming too fatigued. The shoulder blocks, head rest, foot bar and some of my cues held his body in a more symmetrical position. He began in third gear (preventing too much flexion in the knees) and used one spring, sometimes two.

All of the exercises I taught required him to use both sides of his body evenly. On the Cadillac, he used the roll back bar with his feet placed evenly apart. Although he still arrived and left my studio using his wheelchair, at this point he was able to walk with a cane from one piece of equipment to another. He noticed his pain, although still present, had diminished in intensity. He was also able to sit in an upright position longer.

As the difficulty and complexity of the exercises increased, I also began teaching Greg exercises that focused on strengthening the weaker side; and stretches that lengthened the tight side. We finally got to the point where he was able to perform a full basic reformer workout with a few intermediate exercises to add some spice. His reformer workouts were in first gear (just like any other client), and with all four springs. By then, he was coming in 3 times a week for 30 to 45 minutes each time. In addition to using the reformer and Cadillac, I taught him balance exercises on the electric chair (up front, up side, press down, etc.), and focused strengthening moves on the wunda chair (mermaid, pumping, pull the pedal up, etc).

I will never forget the first time I saw Greg walk from his car to the studio. I felt so proud, and deeply moved. Although he still used his wheelchair for most activities, he was strong enough to go grocery shopping, run errands and go out to lunch with friends. Over the months, his stability and balance continued to improve, and his pain lessened.

When Greg and I first met, he couldn’t even walk around the block. Now, he walks 2+ miles a day, 3 or 4 days a week. He can take his dog for walks, and is gardening again. I am proud and happy to have played a part in Greg’s story. He is truly an incredible human being with endless determination, focus and drive. He could have given up long ago, and resigned himself to a life of solitude and pain. Instead, he continues to rise above his injury, and work toward living a happy and independent life!

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