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The Recovery Project

Physical Gains Still Possible 15+ Years After Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury

The Recovery Project all started because of a spark of hope—a shared belief among its co-founders, physical therapist Polly Swingle and spinal cord client Charlie Parkhill, that combining science, compassion and hard work could unlock never-before-dreamed-of possibilities. The duo proved this theory right nearly 15 years ago when they initially developed new, innovative high-intensity physical therapy methods to treat Charlie’s incomplete spinal cord injury. The new research-based protocols led to Charlie regaining a significant amount of quality of life, and eventually taking his first unassisted steps.

More than 15 years after their initial leap, Polly and Charlie are demonstrating once again that miracles can be achieved with a little passion, persistence, dedication and science. The Recovery Project’s co-founders have developed a groundbreaking exercise study that demonstrates the positive impact high-intensity exercise has on a spinal cord injury, even nearly two decades after it is sustained. After eight months of participating in the new program, Charlie can walk unassisted more quickly, travel greater distances in a set amount of time, perform a greater amount of sit-stand exercises in 30 seconds, and stand unassisted for longer periods of time than before.

It all started with a question: Polly wanted to know what would happen if someone who has had an incomplete spinal cord injury for many years participated in a higher intensity therapy program than ever before, completely based on the latest research findings. There is now evidence supporting that treatment approaches are successfully changing the recovery following an incomplete spinal cord injury. The science strongly supports that functional electrical stimulation, moderate intensity exercise/strengthening, body weight support treadmill walking with a gait speed of at least 1.3 and consistent change in the type of exercise received allows for greater recovery following this type of spinal cord injury. Insurance companies do not cover continued high-intensity physical therapy after a certain number of years, and many clinics will not offer it as a result. Thus, research pointed in certain directions, no one really knew what would happen.

Just as she did nearly 15 years ago, Polly had a feeling that if they just gave it a try, more could be achieved than what is currently thought possible for long-term incomplete spinal cord injuries. She did not have to look far to find her willing candidate: her business partner Charlie Parkhill.

“I said yes immediately, I was geeked,” Charlie said of the time when Polly brought the idea to him. “This is exactly what we did when we first met, and this is how The Recovery Project was founded.”

In addition to symbolizing the hope and innovation The Recovery Project was founded on, the study also exemplified one of the key goals for continuing high-intensity physical therapy for spinal cord injuries: to ensure that clients are as physically fit as possible to participate in ongoing research trials to help identify new breakthroughs.

Charlie has been rigorously working out for five to six days a week for the last 17 years since his injury. Among his personal goals of regaining quality of life and being able to walk again, he has always been committed to participating in and contributing to research.

Even with as much time, commitment and effort as he has put into his workouts over the years, he shared that this program was the most difficult and challenging—yet also, the most rewarding—program of his life.

The eight-week program consisted of two sessions per week, lasting two hours each time. The content of the sessions changed each time and included work on the 12 channel functional electrical stimulation bike, the red cord, the body weight supported treadmill at a speed of at least 1.3 mph, overground gait training with a faster than normal gait speed, and moderate functional strength training of all innervated muscles.

As you can see from the success graph below from March 2016, the results have been incredible. The findings experienced by Polly and Charlie supporting their hypothesis that physical gains are possible well after an initial injury occurs has opened the doors to a new world of possibilities for patients—but the work isn’t over. The Recovery Project will leverage these findings as it rolls out its state-of-the-art FES Specialty Center to further push patients to achieve new levels of success. Stay tuned for more information on The Recovery Project’s FES Specialty Center and how it will help patients maximize their neurological recovery and overall health.