By Jordan Halkyard
For some, a spinal cord injury can be the end. These types of injuries commonly come from tragic accidents, and can leave the injured searching for answers and meaning in their new lives as wheelchair-bound. Depression can set in as hope seems to fade.
In this sea of despair, First Steps Wellness Centre in Regina wishes to provide a light to the disabled of Saskatchewan and all of Canada. The Centre provides exercise-based therapy to those with spinal cord injuries to help improve their body’s function, to the point where some clients are able to walk again.
The gym was started by Sturgis natives Chris Lesanko and Owen Carlson in September, 2011. The idea for the facility started after Lesanko had an injury in March, 2005 which left him quadriplegic. To get further rehabilitation, he traveled to the Project Walk facility in San Diego, California. Project Walk is one of the world’s leaders in spinal cord therapy and has helped scores of people with spinal cord injuries improve their lives and functionality.
“He was down there and he would phone me and be like ‘Owen we have got to make this happen back home.’ And at the time I had a good job with a health region and I was like ‘Chris, we’ll see but not right now.’ And he kept bugging me, every few months he would be phoning me. And after awhile I got tired of working at the health region, it kind of put a drain on me, so I told Chris ‘yeah, let’s give it a shot,” co-founder Carlson said.
From there, the work began to make the gym a reality. For a year and a half, they raised money to create the gym while also making sure they would remain a non-profit organization. The biggest help the organization had came from the well-known Saskatchewan charity, Telemiracle. Carlson said that help allowed them to tell potential donors “we had someone big to help us out.” After Telemiracle came forward Carlson and Lesanko “had a bunch of people step up to help (them) out.”
With the funds in place to start their new wellness centre, staff was needed to help out. Andrew Schmidt was one of the first trainers hired. In his time at First Steps, Schmidt has seen it grow from three clients in 2011 to a 30 active clients coming through the facility today.
They are not only coming from Saskatchewan. First Steps has had clients come from as far as Ontario and the Yukon to try to regain some of the function their injury took away. They come in the hopes of becoming another of the gym’s list of success stories.
“ I have seen people regain feeling all the way down to their toes. I have seen people who couldn’t walk take steps,” Schmidt said.
Though walking again is the goal of many people who come into the facility, Carlson knows the probability of that happening again is very low.
“I can never guarantee that someone will walk again and I never will. Around 10 per cent with the Project Walk program all around the world, and we fit into that where around 10-12 per cent of clients are able to take steps again. And that is full-fledged walking. (For us) it is all about regaining function,” Carlson explained.
Though walking may not be in the cards for all clients, many are still ready to make the trip to Regina to take advantage of the facility. The number of people coming to First Steps forced it to move out of its old 1,100 square foot facility, into its new 3,600 square foot facility last year. As well, the gym has taken on two fieldwork students from the University of Regina’s faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies to help out around the gym and to learn what it is like to work with people with spinal cord injuries.
For Schmidt, the biggest key to success for First Steps was the way the gym’s trainers treat its clients and how the gym is different from traditional rehabilitation.
“The largest difference between what we do and what is done in traditional rehab is that we understand they have an injury but we don’t let it limit them. To put a disabled person on an exercise ball and ask them to stabilize their core can be very dangerous. They had a broken back, they have no control over their legs, they cannot control their core, but I don’t care. We will do it in the safest way possible. There are people here that I have worked with for over a year and I know their limitations and we always try to put them in places that they can succeed,” Schmidt said.
“These people have been told for years you have this,this,this, and this and this is what you can do and this is what you can’t do. We don’t want to be like that. We know they have the injury but we don’t want to treat them like they do.”