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New Mobility: My Recovery is Ongoing with The Recovery Project

The Recovery Project co-founder Charlie Parkhill recently contributed an article to New Mobility magazine discussing his personal recovery from a spinal cord injury—including significant physical advances he’s experienced through his training on functional electrical stimulation (FES) equipment. To read the article from New Mobility, click here.

My life changed forever in 1998, when I was dealt a serious spinal cord injury while vacationing in Mexico. An incomplete central cord injury left me a C4-5 quadriplegic, and motionless from the neck down.

While the severity of my injury was undeniable, so was my determination to not let my initial diagnosis define my life or limit the scope of my potential recovery. I have dedicated myself to a lifetime of hard work, aggressive rehabilitation and therapeutic care­, and have subsequently recovered a great deal of the mobility, functionality and quality of life that was initially taken from me. While my commitment to physical fitness, strength training and regular therapeutic exercise has paid dividends, by far the biggest factor has been the innovation and inspiration provided by my longtime physical therapist, Polly Swingle.

I began working with Polly in the earliest stages of my recovery, and her curiosity and commitment to pushing the boundaries of traditional rehabilitative protocols have been an integral part of my ongoing recovery. Nearly two decades after we first met, Polly not only remains my physical therapist, but has become my business partner, as well. Together, in 2002, we co-founded The Recovery Project, an industry-leading rehabilitation practice that provides aggressive, focused and effective rehabilitation to people with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, neurological disorders and other conditions. Today, we are the largest, non-hospital affiliated physical therapy practice specializing in neurorecovery in Michigan, with two clinics and 60 staff members treating over 400 clients a month.

Polly’s belief in the value of frequent, high-intensity therapy and cutting-edge rehabilitative science — and her willingness to use advanced evidence-based techniques and specialized state-of-the-art equipment in new and innovative ways — has been an essential part of both her professional success and my own recovery. I have been a willing subject for her inspired work, and the results have changed both of our lives.

Recently, Polly approached me with a new proposal. She saw me as an ideal candidate to participate in a structured study evaluating the effects of a combination of regular body-weight treadmill training in conjunction with time on a functional electrical stimulation cycle and traditional strength and mobility exercises. While these rehabilitative techniques and technologies have shown great promise for people recovering from spinal cord injuries, the value in people with chronic spinal cord injuries remains largely unstudied and unclear. Our hope was that this study would represent an important first step in addressing this gap in the scientific literature.

The Program

The study included an exercise/therapeutic program made up of two primary components (in addition to my regular cardiovascular and weight training exercise regime): sessions of unweighted treadmill work and time on an FES cycle. Twice a week for eight weeks, I rode the FES bicycle as hard as I could for 30 minutes, and then walked on the unweighted treadmill (with as much weight bearing as possible, at a speed of at least 1.3 mph) for a period of 15-20 minutes. This was followed by approximately 20 minutes of walking (with assistance/spotting) and one hour of intense core/upper extremity training with a physical trainer.

The order is important here: first the FES cycle, then the unweighted treadmill work–followed by the walking and then the core/upper body exercises. Resistance on the FES cycle and my time on the unweighted treadmill were both increased throughout the course of the study.

The Results

The clinical before-and-after results of the eight-week program were noteworthy. The time it took me to complete a 10-meter walk went from 79 seconds to 68 seconds, and I more than doubled the number of sit-to-stands I could perform in 30 seconds (from five to 11). The time I could stand unassisted increased from four seconds to 31 seconds, and the distance I could travel in six minutes of walking went from 82 feet to 118 feet.

Functionally, I progressed from mostly independent transfers to 100 percent independent transfers. My posture and endurance improved, and I became able to independently turn from my back to my stomach (and back again). I also saw greatly decreased swelling in my ankles — and even lost seven pounds!

Even more exciting was what happened when I continued the program beyond the initial eight weeks. Just six months later, my 10-meter walk time improved to one minute and 40 seconds, my 30-second sit-to-stands increased to 13, I could stand unassisted for 48 seconds, and my six-minute walking distance went up to 180 feet.

While we can’t draw broad conclusions from one study of a single individual, these results are dramatic and encouraging — particularly given the fact that my injury occurred nearly two decades ago — and this clearly warrants further study. This protocol has already changed my life, and I’m excited about the promise and potential it holds to do the same for others.