Twelve days after my twentieth birthday I was at my fraternity’s house, spotted a good friend who used to wrestle as I did, and engaged him in an impromptu match. We had done it many times. I like to recall a time I ambushed him late at night leaving the library…I took him down, emptied his backpack on the grass, scattered everything, and ran for safety before he got up. He got me back by flipping a couch I was napping on a few days later. Brotherly love.
This night, my neck broke. It wasn’t immediately clear to me upon hitting the wood floor that I had damaged my spinal cord, or that the trajectory of my life had jerked so far off the path. Not even remotely did I consider the possibility that that moment, that strange instant when the mental awareness of most of my body was replaced with a void, would completely change who I was, cause me to permanently re-engineer my identity.
But it did. I was raised to believe that I could do anything if I worked hard enough. That no matter how bad my situation was, I could always steer myself out of it. Help was nice, but not ever truly necessary. Imagine my psychological terror when, after working to exhaustion for months, I was not recovering. My bedrock became ash.
I reeled. I collapsed. Hope was shone months later in the form of a physical therapist. She showed me around her clinic and discussed with me her treatment protocol. I would later learn she applies what is called “Activity-Based Therapy” principles. At the time, I only understood that she wanted to get me on my feet and walking. I had read that was a good idea, even for people having as little function as I did.
Fast-forward 30 months, I’m stepping in a walker without anyone helping me. I’m stepping without help. I'm not overweight like so many others bound to a chair, my muscles are growing, my sensation improves every day, and my functional recovery is in stride. The day before I moved to Arizona, I set my personal record of walking 198 feet without help.
Fast-forward another 6 months. I haven’t properly gait-trained since arriving in Phoenix. The clinic I go to doesn’t have a robotic machine to get me moving and can’t spare the manpower to assist me over the ground when my legs fatigue. My new best walking distance is about 20 feet. To end this regression, I started designing what would become the Spartan. I needed a cheap, simple tool that one person could strap on me and help me move my legs the correct way in a walker. The first prototype wasn’t pretty, but it worked. And one night, sitting in my room staring blankly at my engineering homework, it occurred to me…this problem I had, this problem I solved for myself, is so common.
It was never my plan to be an entrepreneur, certainly not before I graduated, but a sense of duty overcame me at that time. Love for my fellow humans, compassion for those whose lives are as gnarled as mine, compelled me to create and establish ReneGait; to fundraise, and work full-time while simultaneously studying robotics engineering... full-time.
The words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus summed my philosophy in life before I was paralyzed. And they still do, for the most part. There are two differences I have with Henley’s hero. First, my head did bow—I did give up, many times, and I was terribly afraid.
Regressing after the move caused me to fall into a familiar pit of despair once again. But, somehow, for some set of reasons I probably won’t ever identify, I found the courage to exert control over the direction I was headed. Despite it all, I tried again.
I wouldn’t call myself the master of my fate (if that were the case I would be walking…actually, flying). But the victory I had, recovering what was lost, was enough. The momentum of that victory reshaped me for the better. So I'll leave you all with this...
The rest of the story is plastered on this website. Every new piece of evidence I gleaned from research journals, all the anecdotes, pointed to the value in gait training for those who usually don’t walk. Oh, almost forgot, the second difference I have with Henley’s hero?