CARLSBAD — Jennifer McCallson has always been an athlete. So after an accident cut her competitive cheerleading career short and left her paralyzed, she fought to not let that part of herself change.
“There’s no, ‘Let’s try and get you physically better,’” in the spinal cord injury rehabilitation realm, said the 33-year-old Carlsbad resident. “It’s just, ‘We don’t have a magic cure for spinal cord injury, so therefore you have to sit and wait.’ And I’m not interested in waiting for anything, let alone walking.”
But thanks to an innovative spinal cord injury recovery program in Carlsbad, Project Walk, McCallson has been able to physically train as an athlete for the past several years in her pursuit of being able to regain more function of her body and ultimately walk again.
When she was 20 years old, she broke her neck during a collision with a team member while working as an instructor at a cheerleading camp. Her fifth vertebrae shattered, leaving her paralyzed in the lower half of her body and parts of her hands and arms.
Like the majority of those who experience a spinal cord injury, McCallson received six weeks of insurance-covered physical therapy after her accident to work out the parts of her body that she could still control.
She said that once she gained the ability to function outside of the hospital and her rehabilitation sessions ended, she essentially ran out of options to pursue anything physical.
“(Doctors) tell you, ‘You’re never going to walk again.’ And insurance is like, ‘OK, you can have six weeks of physical therapy.’ And a lot of physical therapists are like, ‘OK, we’ve maxed out your physical ability to do anything else, so now we’re not going to recommend any more physical therapy sessions for you,’” she described.
But McCallson’s athletic streak was still thriving within her, and limiting herself to undertakings that avoided physical activity wasn’t enough.
For years after her injury, she said she “lived in the box of what everyone thought I should do” by focusing on her education.
“I was just kind of miserable and tired of doing what everyone wanted me to do and I really missed being an athlete,” she recalled.
Then about five years after her injury, McCallson found Project Walk and moved to Carlsbad from where she grew up in Northern California.
Founded in 1999 by Ted and Tammy Dardzinski and Eric Harness, Project Walk was developed in response to the need for exercise-based recovery program for people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries.
Based on research that asserted that exercise and activity could assist in recovering bodily function after a spinal cord injury, Project Walk established a physical training program designed to help individuals regain strength and control in their bodies according to their specific injury.
The organization over the years has partnered up with individual researchers, hospitals and universities to support and further explore this recovery theory.
“When we started our program 14 years ago, we were accused of giving people false hope and that exercise/activity couldn’t possibly help someone recover function below the level of their injury,” said Project Walk Client Services Manager Gigi Betancourt.
But in 2008, Project Walk put forth its own research and data in the journal “Spinal Cord” that demonstrated that exercise could improve function below the level on injury in humans, she said.
“We don’t measure our results on how many people are ‘walking’ as each person’s body reacts different to our program, however we do however have a 71 percent documented improvement rate,” explained Betancourt.
The nonprofit organization established its headquarters at a large gym in Carlsbad in 2002. Their programs also integrate education, support, and encouragement for their clients.
Today, Project Walk has centers and certified specialists all over the world that see more than 27,000 client hours each year. The facility in Carlsbad currently sees 70 to 85 local clients each month.
McCallson has been training at Project Walk for over eight years to rebuild function below her C5/C6 level of injury.
Having moved beyond basic strength-building exercises, her current goals include improving her posterior tilt and developing better hip stability. She trains 12 to 16 hours at the Project Walk facility every week, completing exercises like pulling herself up to a kneeling position with a walker and the support of electric stimulators on her abdominal muscles.
“At Project Walk, I’m never in my wheelchair ever,” said McCallson during a recent afternoon training session as The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” played in the gym. Brushing her dirty blonde hair away from her face, she continued, “I strengthen the muscles that I have and I work constantly trying to recruit more and more that aren’t necessarily getting a clear signal.”
McCallson fights the notion that by focusing on regaining her ability to walk she is in denial of her physical condition.
“I’ll be really honest. I’m not walking now, and that’s OK because I’m a lot closer than I ever would have been if I had just sat and waited in my chair,” she said.
“There’s this misconception that if you hold this dream of walking, that you’re not moving on with your life. But let me tell you the rest of my life moves forward in every aspect.”
Since her injury, McCallson earned her degree in sports management with an emphasis in wellness and fitness. She has her own apartment and has been dating her boyfriend for the past few years.
She volunteers extensively for organizations that cater to individuals with physical disabilities including the Head North Foundation and Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, focusing particularly on her work as a peer mentor and grant advisor for the national nonprofit, Empower SCI.
She aspires to one day open a summer camp in San Diego to teach teens with physical disabilities to live independently so they can go to college, and is hoping to find public relations and fundraising volunteers to realize this dream.
“Jenn’s really active in the community,” said Project Walk trainer Danielle Justin, who McCallson calls “D-Nasty.” “ “She is still living her life, and not just kind of waiting around.”
McCallson said that she plans on continuing her work at Project Walk for as long as she lives in southern California and intends on continuing exercised-based recovery training for the rest of her life.
“I will continue training this style forever, I mean until I start walking, and then I would still continue this type of therapy,” she said.
But financing her sessions at Project Walk may soon become a challenge for her.
McCallson so far has been able to fund her training with the workers’ compensation settlement from her injury, but those funds are finite.
Training sessions at Project Walk cost $110 per hour, and the local client program requires two to three hour sessions two to four days per week.
Moreover, health insurance will not cover these sessions.
“Since spinal cord injury recovery is not a field that health insurance companies endorse or support, the financial burdens fall upon our clients and their families. For us, nothing is more heartbreaking than a client who is not able to attend our program or leaves before realizing his or her goals due solely to financial difficulties,” said Betancourt.
McCallson said she will soon consider fundraising to cover her program costs, an option many Project Walk clients utilize, but also has a dream of being sponsored by Nike.
Project Walk also offers a “Move Your Heart” scholarship for several clients and uses 100 percent of all donations raised for the organization for improving its facility, equipment, and programs.
On July 11, Project Walk will hold a fundraiser at Belly Up in Solana Beach, complete with live performances by local musicians and a silent auction. Funds raised will go towards the organization’s scholarship fund.
“When you have a spinal cord injury, there aren’t (recovery) programs that you come across,” said McCallson. “I found out about Project Walk and I decided, ‘That’s it. I know that’s where I want to go. That’s what I want to do.’”
“I want to walk, but it’s not because I find self-validation in it,” she said. “Wheelchair or not, I know I have an amazing, happy, thriving life.”
“I just think honestly (walking) makes certain things in life easier…and cheaper. Having a spinal cord injury is extremely expensive.”
Visit projectwalk.org for more information about the organization, its programs, and making a donation.