More than “Walking”
If all of a sudden your ability to walk naturally and independently was abruptly stripped away from you, and that is all you knew, do you think you would want to walk again? Most people would say, “YES” without any hesitation.
Why would a person not want to walk again, especially soon after their injury/disease? It would almost be uncommon if a person did not have the desire to walk again, knowing that’s the way he or she got through life. Why would you want to work harder in life by being in a wheelchair, when at one point your whole body, both upper and lower extremities, helped you to get through your days? *My legs, abs, arms, my entire body helped me do everything I did whether I realized it or not at the time…
On October 15, 2005 I was in a horrific car accident that unfortunately took my boyfriend Patrick’s life, and I was left paralyzed from mid-chest down as a result of that fatal accident. We lived in San Diego at the time, hoped for a fun night in Rosarito beach. We wanted to show our friends a good time in Mexico; still, we thought we were being “safer” by taking a taxi from the Mexican border to Rosarito. We were just seconds away from our destination, but we never made it. We struck a horse that was standing in the middle of the highway. The horse landed on top of the roof, crushing it all the way down to seat level on the left side, instantly killing my boyfriend Patrick who was next to me, and the taxi driver who was in front of me. I was instantly paralyzed, my lungs collapsed, several other muscles were fractured, and my heart was crushed. The rest is yet to come.
Walking Again a Part of Recovery?
*Do you think everyone who loses their ability to walk puts as their number ONE goal and dream in life to walk again? No, not everyone does; although you might want or expect me to say, “yes.”
-So the important question is: Did I want to walk again after I suffered a spinal cord injury?
Absolutely, with all my heart! I vividly remember telling the therapists and doctors that “WE (my family and I) were NOT going to ‘give up’ and that we were already looking for other options to help me walk again;” One of those options considered was stem cell surgery in Portugal. Now, don’t think I’m an expert in the field of stem cell, because stem cell was just explored as a potential option. My family looked into several other options that could “possibly cure” spinal cord injuries. The chances to walk again after a “complete” spinal cord injury seemed very slim… and that was somewhat discouraging. However, it seemed like it was always far more discouraging for my loved ones than for me. To them, my inability to walk again was not only looked as an open wound “unfair,” maybe a failure and simply a troubling concept to grasp on, but more importantly, me not wanting to walk or even pursue walking was looked as “giving up” to many of them. They said and said, “we’re not going to give up. We’re going to find a way. You’re going to walk again!” when I never gave up on life.
About a year later after my injury, I was fortunate to meet an outstanding neurosurgeon from Mexico who willingly came all the way to me; he flew from Guadalajara, Mexico (a widely known city for its medical advancements) all the way up to Northern California, simply to evaluate me. He never promised me that he could get me “back up and walking,” but he wanted me to travel to Guadalajara so that he could conduct more extensive studies to find out if there was really anything he could do for me. He was hopeful, yet realistic, and flew back the same day after we had dinner, leaving me with the biggest hope yet after my injury to walk again. Not many doctors would miss all of their surgeries for two days, considering he works for one of the top hospitals in Mexico, just to come meet me because he didn’t even know me; he only knew of me and my story, but came in the hopes to see if he could help me in any way. All this was more than heartwarming; I put my hopes into “possibly” walking again thanks to this doctor’s optimism, and extremely kind action to come meet me.
Hoping to Walk Again
After a year and a half of my injury, I was ready to travel to Mexico, and I could truly visualize myself walking. I could almost feel in my body what it would feel like to walk again. I traveled to Mexico, hoping to get a back surgery that would help me walk again, envisioning myself returning to California walking through the airport gates as my family awaited me. I visualized myself standing and looking at them at eye level, and I would slowly and maybe ungracefully walk towards them, but my vision was to walk and give them a hug standing up. Just one hug standing up…
Unfortunately, this vision of walking did not become my reality after my trip to Mexico. As a matter of fact, my reality was far from walking, and I was devastated…at first. I kept thinking, why can’t I walk again? I was troubled and broken, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Patrick was killed at the scene of the accident, and as much as I wanted to bring him back, I’d never be able to. So, at times, I did wonder, “why can’t I get some of my leg movement, some of what I lost? At least some real hope that I’d maybe be able to walk one day?” In life, walking seemed more feasible to me, but it wasn’t happening.
All the neurosurgeon could do surgically in Mexico was try to alleviate the spine by taking two screws, out of 16, because they were going straight into my spinal cord. I suppose their priority was to stabilize my back, since to them, I was never going to walk again. After the accident, my back was stabilized and fused with two rods and 16 screws from vertebrae C3-T10 (top of the neck to mid-back). The doctors said, “if they hadn’t operated me when they did, I would have become a quadriplegic because I had some cervical damage.” And there were several other surgeries performed aside from my back surgery. So I’m forever thankful because those doctors did what they could at the time, all things considered. After the two screws that were going straight into my spinal cord were taken out in Mexico, I worked intensively at therapy to recover from my surgery. While therapy in Mexico for just a couple months, I really hoped I could somehow walk and that my legs and nerves would maybe “wake up” and so did my family. This surgery was not performed so I could walk though…
Time to go Back Home
The time came for me to go back to the US after a couple months of being in Mexico. Remember my airport vision? Well I came back in my wheelchair, rolling through the airport, not walking… But you know what? I was HERE, and I kept reminding myself of that to get through all of this. My number one goal after my injury and a dream I had for my entire life was to graduate from college. Every single thing I did after my accident was so I could gain strength and more independence, all so I could go back to school and finish what I had started. I always knew that walking or not walking, I would go back to school no matter what or how and accomplish this goal— nothing was going to stop me. I just thought for some time that if I could walk, things would maybe be easier.
I clearly traveled to Mexico looking for the most obvious healing, which was the physical one. This trip helped me heal and realize I could only live for me. *From that trip on, that once seemed disappointing, I healed mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and that’s what mattered to me, even though I didn’t get the results I hoped for. I looked at this surgery not as a failure but as an experience that would only strengthen me. When I went down to Mexico for my surgery, I saw myself as a survivor, not a victim, and after the “failed” surgery, I was still a survivor. Ever since I first opened my eyes after the accident, I was always grateful for my life; but after going to Mexico, the survivor in me was more alive, stronger and ready to conquer anything.
Focusing on What I Could DO
I wrote the following lines the first time I publicly introduced myself on the Internet as a person who now happened to have a disability and use a wheelchair (this was written in my ‘about me’ section close to my two-year anniversary of the accident):
“I’m very thankful with God for giving me a second chance in life, for allowing me to reevaluate my life, and for blessing me with a true guardian angel that saved my life that night, my boyfriend Patrick. He was killed in the car accident; pushed me down to protect me and saved me without even doubting it. If he hadn’t done that, put it this way, I just simply would not be here! As a result of the accident I was left paralyzed, (T2). Losing the love of my life has been greater than anything, and me being paralyzed means nothing compared to the pain of his loss. So it’s a miracle that I’m here, and I love my life even with the wheelchair! I wouldn’t want to trade it with anyone else’s.
I would love to walk again, but I haven’t let the injury take over my life; I’ve just tried to make it a part of my life. I feel so blessed to be here that anything I get back, if I do, it’s just a plus! My legs are only a part of my body; they don’t define who I am, and they‘re not my life. And walking is only one of the activities that abled body people can engage in- it’s not my life either. After my accident, I’m still the same person; I’m only trying to become a better one! I’ve had to hit the floor to get back up stronger than ever, and I’ve had to do that several times. But I’m even thankful for those days, and I still smile at life.”
The thought of walking never became over powering, thankfully. I chose to focus on the things I could do and that were in my control. I did not want to put my life on hold for something that “might never come” such as walking. Unfortunately, I saw no signs of me walking again; I was not gaining any return, no function, and very little sensation was gained below the level of my injury (mid- chest). So why would I let the thought of walking, which was not very realistic for me at the time, take over my life? How about going back to school and doing everything I always wanted to do and even more?
That’s exactly what made sense to me. And in order to move forward and not stay stuck in life, I gave up on the dream of walking. It was easier to do that, *but just because I gave up on walking doesn’t mean I gave up on everything. I never gave up on my life. I wanted to save myself a heartache, be realistic about my situation, and move forward no matter what proud and thankful for what I had. Life is what we make of it, and regardless of my mobility, or lack thereof, I was determined to have a good life. It would certainly never be the same; my life was forever changed, and drastically, but I accepted that. However, just because it was now different, it did not mean that in some ways it couldn’t be better. I held on to that thought very tightly even when it did not make sense at my lowest points, and I still hang on to it as the optimistic person I strive to be.
My College Dream
I went back to school after nearly two years of my accident because I suffered many serious medical complications after I first left the hospital. However, I was determined to graduate with highest honors. It sounds so easy, but it was not easy to get through school now with a spinal cord injury and in a wheelchair. However, I knew it was not impossible, many others had done it, it was never “poor me” and this was my life-long dream! We all decide how we view ourselves regardless of if a person has a disability or not. I didn’t want to victimize myself. I suffered many losses in a matter of seconds; the biggest loss was, by far, loosing my loved one. However, me having a second chance in life is what helped me to truly appreciate MY life and be grateful for it because Patrick did not have a second chance. I did. This helped me focus on not losing my spirit and desire to live and achieve because I survived.
I majored in Communication Studies and became the first student in a wheelchair at CSU Stanislaus to win the contest to be the commencement speaker at the graduation ceremony. I was fortunate to deliver a motivational speech in front of 10,000 people. Nothing held me back from graduating with highest honors, Summa Cum Laude. As I accomplished this dream of graduating college, the potential opportunity to walk again, in a way, came in front of me, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for this. More about my journey to “walking” in the next section.
Walking in Ekso?
YES, after over five years of being paralyzed there was a slim chance that I might be able to walk! I was visiting a female patient at the hospital for peer support, as it’s vital for me to share my experiences with others, especially young females. I visited this lovely patient, and she is the one who told me told me first about eLEGS (now Ekso)- this “device that helps people to get up and walk!” she said.
I did not know anything about it when she mentioned it to me since I did not keep up that much with new technologies that could actually help people walk again. I guess it wasn’t my priority. I went home and ‘googled’ it just to see what it was. I was so thrilled to see this technology was here, in my lifetime. When I was injured there was no talk about this, at least not to the general public. To know it was here was simply unbelievable! Avatar had just come out. This exoskeleton seemed so ‘avatarish’ and almost unreal. I just thought it was cool that this technology was so advanced, and farther ahead than I would have ever imagined. I never thought I would have a chance to try it.
Just a few days later, a friend of mine contacted me asking me if I would be interested in “maybe trying eLEGS out, if I knew what it was?” I never put my life or days on hold because of an obsession to walk again; I knew I wanted to grow academically, professionally, and transcend regardless of my mobility. However, when the amazing opportunity landed in my life, I questioned if I truly wanted to “walk” again? I had given up on it, remember? This could potentially change my outlook on walking after being paralyzed for a few years. Did I want to go there? I thought before I responded to my friend: If technology can help me walk again, why not? Why NOT? I guess I can say I answered my own question by thinking: “I have nothing to loose!” I then replied and said, “YES, I know what it is, and I would love to give it a try, if possible. What do I need to do?”
I contacted the clinical director and was able to come in as a test pilot because I met some of their criteria, as they needed to test the device on a person of short stature, which I luckily happened to fall into that category being the shortest participant yet to try it out. Finally being on the shorter end of the spectrum helped for something! And there you go, I came into their warehouse not knowing if the device would fit me, as it had never been tested on someone who was 5 “2” or even work for me as I have such a high level of paraplegia (T2), and that was another new variable. I was hoping I would be able to walk, but I was not sure and could not expect anything.
Well, I walked that day! And it was an epic moment! Remember that hug I had wanted standing up? Well I was able to hug my loved ones standing up together! I think they were just as shocked as I was because we didn’t know what the outcome would be. That day, which I will never forget, I walked and walked, even when I was ready to say, “I’m tired,” I walked. I thought I am here today! So many people would do anything to be in my place. I was so fortunate and I knew there was no guarantee I’d be back again, so I made it count. I kept thinking about what my late boyfriend, Pat, always said, “Go big or go home” and I went BIG that day! Then I went home on cloud 9! My experience of walking again is difficult to fully express through words. To walk again after years of not walking at all (and not thinking this could ever happen!), and to actually advance standing UP, see my legs and feet take a step, look at my loved ones at eye level was just incredible! More than words could ever describe. I walked again physically in life when I least expected it. The opportunity of walking in Ekso is something I am forever thankful for because it has made me reevaluate hope and taught me many valuable lessons.
I will forever remain grateful for this technology and everyone who has worked on this for years to bring it to reality, impacting many. To know that with the basic principle that my mother taught me- determination, perseverance, and arduous work- I have done what we didn’t think aT2 paraplegic could do in Ekso, and it makes the whole experience even more meaningful for me. I am not the best walker in Ekso by any means, but I have personally faced several challenges and overcame them all! This has marked my life in very profound ways.
I had given up on the dream of walking, but if I’m honest with myself and all of you: that dream was still somewhere there, inside my heart and mind. Now I feel very thankful because I brought this dream afloat and fulfilled it; it is no longer a dream that is forgotten, pushed away or buried. The dream is ALIVE. I don’t regret giving up on walking for a little while because that allowed me to grow in other ways and fulfill other dreams. Having the ability to walk again in life after “giving up hope” is priceless.
I have learned that one must remain open, truly open, to the endless possibilities that life has to offer. And one must firstly believe and continue to dream big. What once might seem unattainable and impossible might all of a sudden become your reality, and you have the power to make that your reality. The impossible can turn into a possibility! This valuable lesson has come from my experience in Ekso and will forever be a milestone in my life, the life that I would never trade.
A major advocate of people with disabilities and Spanish TV Icon said to me: “In life, we not only walk physically, but we walk with our minds, spirit and our desire to live and succeed.” I wish to all of you that you may continue to walk in life no matter what. Keep on moving forward. May all of your walks, mental ones, spiritual ones, and physical ones, or all of the above, take you to reach new heights and to journeys that you may enjoy every step of the way.
If you read this, you can see how meaningful this walk has been all around. As I continue to walk, when possible in Ekso feeling so fortunate for the opportunity, whether it be in front of one person or thousands of people, cameras for primetime news or TV shows, whether it’s in front of famous icons or Presidents and global leaders, I hope you see how much this experience has reignited hope in me, which is what is most important to me. In the process, I really hope to help others keep hope alive and encourage people to never give up hope. It does not have to be hope to walk again, but never loose that hope that keeps us optimistic of the unknown! I walk with my mind, soul, heart, and body (when I’m in Ekso) for the many who are not able to in any way, at least not yet :). My hope is that more and more people will defy the old and most common heartbreaking outcome and are able to walk after a life-changing experience. My hope for everyone from all walks of life is to continue to always walk with their minds, heart, and spirit striving to thrive.
This is my very personal and meaningful walking journey. I thank Ekso Bionics from the bottom of my heart for making what I thought was impossible in my lifetime, a reality for me and so many people! And I thank my family, loved ones, and friends for supporting me every step of the way!
I hope you can see, as I do, that my journey to walking is far more than just “walking!”
I fully believe the impossible can be turned into possible and I hope you do too!
Thank you for reading about my journey and feel free to share!
*To wrap this up with upcoming exciting news: This Saturday, July 14th, Ekso Bionics and I will be featured on the longest-running Spanish TV show, Sabado Gigante. On their 50th Anniversary, I will walk on stage in front of TV Icon, Don Francisco, and all of his viewers. Make sure to tune in and watch Sabado Gigante from the Spanish TV network, Univision, this upcoming Saturday, and don’t forget to check your local listings!