ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Told he had only a 50 to 75 percent chance of walking again, Brock Mealer came to the University of Michigan Health System Jan. 8, 2008 for intensive inpatient rehabilitation. After undergoing two surgeries in an Ohio hospital to stabilize his spine after being partially severed in a severe car accident 15 days earlier, Mealer would spend the next three months in University Hospital under the care of spinal cord injury treatment specialists in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Though his chances were better than most, his journey during the last two-plus years – which will culminate in walking the Michigan Wolverines out onto the field of the Big House for the first game of the 2010 football season – shows that determination and state of mind have as much to do with recovery as the grueling physical labor required to regain strength and balance to do what most people take for granted, to walk again.
“I always knew Brock was going to be able to walk again,” says Gianna Rodriguez, M.D., who is Mealer’s physician and treats patients in U-M’s Spinal Cord Injury Model Care Program. “You can spot a person who has a strong spirit and who will persevere through the hard work. A person like Brock is persistently and consistently optimistic and motivated to achieve more.”
In the accident, which occurred on Christmas Eve 2007 and took the life of his father and his brother’s (U-M offensive lineman Elliott Mealer) girlfriend, he also sustained a broken wrist. His spinal cord injury meant he initially did not have any strength in both lower extremities, but had some sensation – a key factor in his recovery.
Help getting Mealer to his goal meant daily therapy sessions to regain balance and build muscle tone and strength in his torso, legs and wrist, in addition to learning all about SCI, preventing complications and staying healthy. To keep getting stronger, he knew he had to keep himself healthy.
“I had to learn everything all over,” Mealer says. “I couldn’t sit up and I was in pain all the time. One of the hardest things to get used to was needing to rely on someone else for life’s most basic tasks. I had always been so independent.”
Brock regained feeling down to his knees and moved his legs for the first time in January 2008, just days after he was admitted to U-M.
His prospects looked good.
“Studies have shown that people who have some sensation preserved at the level below the injury at one year after the accident can recover some strength in both lower extremities,” Rodriguez says.
As his three-month inpatient rehabilitation period under the care of Rodriguez, Physical Therapist, Cindy Douglas, and the whole Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation SCI team came to an end, he began outpatient therapy with Michelle Stemple, PT and the MedRehab SCI team.
He began aggressive strength training and weight assisted treadmill ambulation training on the Lokomat, which helps encourage the return of muscle strength in the lower extremities without making the patient carry the full weight of their bodies at first.
“It took a month of therapy to tolerate standing and get my leg muscles working,” Mealer says. “The first time I used the Lokomat, I was simply thrilled to be walking again. I pictured myself out on the sidewalk. It [gave] my legs a taste of what they [were] meant to be doing,” he says.
According to an article Mealer wrote for SCI Access, by fall 2008, he had progressed from not being able to sit up for five minutes to being able to walk with leg braces and a walker for short distances, after only four months in rehabilitation.
“Brock was very motivated in therapy,” Stemple says. “He was very positive and determined to gain as much function as he could.”
By the time he finished therapy and Lokomat training with Stemple in December 2009, he was able to walk 50 to 100 feet with a rolling walker and crutches without assistance, get in and out of his car on his own and drive with hand controls.
He was regaining his independence.
Today, Mealer stands on the verge of something he’s poured his heart and soul into, something he never gave up on, in spite of the grueling two years of therapy with PM&R staff and training with U-M strength and conditioning coaches in the last eight months; in spite of assurances from surgeons that he may never walk again.
Mealer’s care team:Gianna Rodriguez, M.D., Cindy Douglas, P.T., Jamie Baltzell, O.T., Diane Kobe, MSW, Donna Esyter, discharge planner, Michelle Meade, Ph.D., the Rehab Engineering team and all the nurses on 6A, SCI acute inpatient rehab; and the outpatient MedRehab SCI team.
About PM&R:Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation’s Spinal Cord Injury team and Model Systems SCI System are at the forefront of SCI research. The program provides comprehensive, pro-active to get patients stronger and continuously educates and monitors patients and their caregivers about the various complications of SCI to prevent problems and get patients back to leading healthy lives. SCI clinicians at U-M work closely and collaborate with other medical specialties such as urology, pulmonary medicine and gastroenterology to facilitate care, prevent complications and address problems sooner rather than later.
Online at www.med.umich.edu/pmr/modelsci/.