Recovery from paralysis: What does it really look like? We are seeing more and more examples of people with SCI experiencing varying degrees of “recovery,” but almost all of them will still be dependent on wheelchairs. To some degree the improvements we are seeing are due to new rehab protocols made possible by technology — functional electric stimulation, treadmill walking, exoskeleton use, etc. Some proponents of exercise therapy claim that hard work is the key to recovery. But the truth is recovery of function is almost always related to some degree of incompleteness of injury.
Having been paralyzed for more than 52 years, I have met and interacted with hundreds of SCI survivors. I have interviewed and written stories about hundreds more. Add to that nearly 17 years of corresponding with NM readers with SCI on a daily basis and the number is well over 1,000. That constitutes a large sampling of SCI survivors. They all have their unique personal stories, but the one thing they — we — all have in common is damage to our spinal cords. And the key to realizing true recovery potential lies in understanding the incredible complexity of the spinal cord, and how no two injuries are exactly alike.
SCI can best be understood as a continuum. Cord damage ranges from mild and temporary — when survivors spontaneously regain motor and sensory function within weeks or months — to very severe — when the spinal cord is damaged beyond repair and no useful nerve impulses can reach beyond the damaged area. The great majority of survivors lie somewhere in the middle, where varying degrees of incompleteness exist. Many injuries are incomplete anatomically, yet functionally complete. A smaller number are anatomically and functionally incomplete — meaning enough critical nerve fibers or tracts are spared to facilitate some degree of recovery.
Those survivors who fall in this range are the fortunate ones. With timely intervention, proper therapy and hard work, as well as access to the latest rehab technology, time and money, they can experience some degree of functional return. But most people in this group will still remain dependent on wheelchairs.
Let’s be honest. Recovery is a misnomer. A better word to describe our ability to regain partial function is to “reclaim.” Reclaiming means to retrieve or recover something that has previously been lost. With SCI, unfortunately, mainstream thinking considers “walking again” as the Holy Grail. But reclaiming goes well beyond walking. In fact, walking is a small part of living, and it is possible to reclaim all or nearly all of the best that life has to offer — love, companionship, happiness, fulfillment, a sense of purpose, belonging to a community, faith, hope, gratitude, compassion for others, dedication to a cause or passion — without ever standing or taking another step.
This does not mean that it is fruitless to work hard at trying to reclaim control over our physical bodies. Indeed, unless we try, we can never know for certain how much we might be able to take back.
But we will never take back the past. Better to live our lives in the present.