This week, a Greenwood woman discovered she could once again bend her legs herself.
What seems like a simple movement took an enormous amount of concentration, focus and muscle therapy. But it was a huge breakthrough for Jazzmin Brown, who was paralyzed after a heroin overdose in October 2012. It’s one of many she’ll need to reach her goal of walking again.
This week, she’s wrapping up a monthlong program at Project Walk Atlanta, an intensive rehabilitation center for people with spinal injuries. Brown, 21, won’t be up and walking at the completion of her therapy. That’s a goal that could take years of hard work and training, but she’s regaining some control of her legs, which is an encouraging first step.
The heroin overdose caused her spine to swell, paralyzing her hands and legs. But Brown has found out that being a quadriplegic doesn’t necessarily mean the nerve connections to her hands and legs are permanently cut off. Even before leaving for Atlanta, Brown’s legs would twitch from time to time, and she already had begun to get control of her arms, allowing her to browse the Web on her tablet or put on makeup.
In four weeks in Atlanta, she’s gained more strength to lift and push with her arms and can use her abs to lift and stabilize her legs. She’s learned weight exercises to help her straighten her arms. Trainers have moved her legs to try to retrain the motion of walking, and she’s regained more movement.
During one session, Brown was hooked into a harness to support her body and hold her upright. She stood on a treadmill; and as the belt slowly moved underneath, trainers picked up her feet, bent her knees and helped her walk. Brown wasn’t controlling the movement herself, but seeing herself walk in the mirror and on video was amazing, inspiring and motivating, she said.
“That was an amazing feeling to be able to see myself doing it,” Brown said. “A lot of places won’t do that. They’ll say you don’t have movement, and that will be the end of it. They’re seeing people with no movement getting it every day. It was just amazing.”
‘It’s super inspiring’
The trip to Atlanta also gave Brown a huge dose of inspiration, which has made her want to relearn to walk even more. Since coming to Project Walk Atlanta, she’s seen a 14-year-old girl who had regained a large amount of leg movement and a man, who was a quadriplegic like herself, working on taking his own steps, she said.
“They’re all living fulfilling lives. It’s super inspiring,” Brown said. “They’ve done it, and those people have actually broken their spines. Mine isn’t broken, but my nerves just died. It’s harder for them to gain any function back, and they did. I know that as time goes on and I keep working at it, then eventually something is going to happen for me, too.”
Project Walk Atlanta has been helping people with spinal injuries regain movement through intensive therapy since March 2012. Founder Paul Pickard launched the center after seeing how therapy at a Project Walk center in California helped his son, who was paralyzed in a car accident in high school.
Research has shown that the intensive physical therapy can help rebuild nerve connections, Pickard said. As trainers bend legs and simulate the walking motion, muscles and nerves in the legs are sending signals toward the brain, Pickard said.
As the person sees the motions and concentrates on doing them, the brain is sending signals toward the legs. As the damaged area of the spine gets bombarded with those messages from both ends, the body can begin to repair itself and re-create that connection between leg and brain, he said.
The therapy is pricey, costing $10,000 for the monthlong program Brown enrolled in. Project Walk Atlanta raises money to help offset the cost, which allowed Pickard to promise Brown a $5,000 scholarship if she could raise $5,000 on her own.
She was able to match that, as well as raise another $7,000 needed for travel for her and her mother, a nurse and a monthlong hotel stay. Brown raised money through fundraisers and by giving speeches to schools, youth groups and other organizations, sharing the story of her battle with alcohol and drugs. She’s now narcotic-free, which has meant relying on Tylenol instead of stronger painkillers to fight pain after outpatient surgeries or other injuries.
‘Miracles do happen’
Brown is taking advantage of every moment of therapy, doing three-hour workouts every weekday since arriving at Project Walk Atlanta in the beginning of June. That’s a more rigorous schedule than most people take on at the center, Pickard said, but the hard work has already greatly increased her mobility.
“She has progressed in a lot of ways. She is stronger. Her core is more stable. She’s getting activation in her quads,” Pickard said. “She is really pushing her body and pushing herself.”
Walking again is Brown’s ultimate goal, but she also wants to improve her mobility to become more independent. Since her overdose, she needs help to do almost all day-to-day activities from getting out of bed to getting ready for the day ahead.
“I want to be independent, and at the same time I want to show people that miracles do happen. And if you become wheelchair-bound, you don’t have to be. You can work through it,” she said.
Her mother, Missie Brown, has witnessed her daughter’s growth in the program. This week as Jazzmin Brown was bending her own legs, trainers quickly called everyone over. Missie Brown and Pickard both got to watch as she pushed down with her legs and worked to support her weight.
“I wish we could stay longer because it seems every week she’s getting stronger,” Missie Brown said. “She literally pushed her weight up. They bent her legs, and she pushed them to a straight position bearing her weight. She was able to do it like five more times, so that was quite amazing.”
A person’s recovery is driven by their motivation and devotion to continuing therapy after leaving Project Walk Atlanta, Pickard said. Trainers have taught Jazzmin Brown the exercises she needs to continue rebuilding her nerve and muscle connections and it will be up to her to continue, he said.
Once they’re back in Greenwood, Jazzmin and Missie Brown want to find a personal trainer. Since the Project Walk Atlanta team continues to develop new training techniques, they could go back for a weeklong program to help assess her progress and start the next phase of therapy, Missie Brown said.