Injured Derry woman planning 'Push' to regain mobility
By Gina DelFavero
Published: Friday, May 1, 2009
In a study initiated and released in April by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, it was discovered that 40 percent more Americans live with paralysis than originally thought -- over five times the number previously estimated.
According to the study, one in 50 Americans lives with some form of paralysis.
Brittany McGraw, 18, is one of those people, left a quadriplegic after breaking her neck in a car accident. But her paralysis is something she hopes is temporary, despite what doctors and surgeons have told her, and she's putting her faith into an organization called Push to Walk to bring her dream of living out of her wheelchair to fruition.
Push to Walk, which was modeled after a similar program called Project Walk based in California, is marketed as a place for spinal cord injury exercise and recovery. In its mission statement on its Web site, it is stated, "The objective is to help people with spinal cord injuries to maintain and improve their physical health and well-being and reduce secondary complications with the ultimate goal of walking again."
Using individualized, one-on-one workout regimes, the Push to Walk techniques focuses on weight-bearing exercises to help gauge the body's response to the stimulus.
Brittany and her parents, Don and Sandy McGraw, first heard about the program just over a month ago, in March, when the "Today" show did a piece on the organization.
On the show, they featured a young boy who had been left a quadriplegic after a serious diving accident. After two years with Push to Walk, the boy had the ability to walk again.
The McGraws were also in touch with a family from Pittsburgh whose son, Shane Bargerstock, who is Brittany's age, was also left a quadriplegic after a devastating football injury. They, too, had heard about Push to Walk, and together, the families decided to give the program a try.
The McGraws started researching the program on the Internet, and Sandy made a call to the organization a few days later.
"I called and asked them about the program, asked what made them different from physical therapy, and they said their goal is to get the person out of the chair," Sandy said. "They don't focus on preparing them to live in the chair."
Pegged as more like an intense workout session rather than physical or occupational therapy, the entire regime is done out of the wheelchair.
Impressed by their initiative, Sandy and Don McGraw delved further into the Push to Walk program, but unfortunately discovered that their insurance would not pay for the treatments and technology. The program is not approved by the Federal Drug Administration because it's not considered a medical facility, but rather is closer to an exercise center.
"They say they've had a lot of success," Sandy remarked. "They don't give you a guarantee, but they say she will improve, at the least. It could be a year from now -- it all depends on the program."
Even if the program, for some reason, doesn't result in a person's ability to walk again, the exercises help to fend off complications that can result from a spinal cord injury, such as muscle atrophy and bone density loss.
The McGraws and Bargerstocks will leave July 13 for the facility in Bloomingdale, N.J. The Bargerstocks will be conducting their own fundraisers for Shane's treatment.
Aside from her goal of one day walking again and leaving her wheelchair behind, Brittany said she's hoping to extend her network of support through the program.
"I want to meet some new people, more support groups, people to connect with," Brittany said, noting that people with her condition are so spread out that the only way she really gets to commune with other quadriplegics is through the Internet.
Now a freshman psychology student at Seton Hill University, Brittany was able to graduate with her class at Derry Area High School in June 2008. "I didn't want to get behind," she said.
Life changing experience
McGraw lived the life of any average teenager, going to school, hanging out with friends and preparing to enjoy her senior year before going off to college.
Then one fall night, her life changed drastically.
On Nov. 22, 2005, McGraw was out for a night of fun with her friends when their car stalled on Rt. 30 in Latrobe. As they were attempting to get the car off to the side of the road, a pickup truck rear-ended them.
The impact left McGraw, who was seated in the rear passenger seat, with a broken neck. She was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident.
The only other passenger injured was left only with a broken jaw.
"It was the first time I'd ever let her go out with friends on her own," Sandy McGraw recalled.
McGraw was taken by ambulance to Latrobe Hospital, and from there was taken by Life Flight to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh. Aside from a broken neck, Brittany also sustained a broken left femur in her leg and, due to her neck injury, her right vocal cord was paralyzed.
At UPMC Presbyterian, Brittany underwent surgeries to fuse together her C-5 and C-6 areas of her spinal column, and to repair the femur bone. She also was given an injection into the paralyzed vocal chord to increase its size and allow it to better function in tandem with the uninjured chord.
Brittany spent three and a half weeks at in recovery at the hospital before she was transferred to the Children's Institute for three months to undergo physical and occupational therapy.
The doctors and surgeons at both the Latrobe and Pittsburgh hospitals gave the McGraws little hope, warning them that it was unlikely Brittany would ever again have movement below the neck.
"Her dad and I were told she wouldn't move from the neck down," Sandy said. "But we knew Brit. She's since proven them wrong."
Brittany doesn't remember much of what occurred between the time of the accident and her transfer to the Children's Institute, particularly her stint in the intensive care unit at UPMC Presbyterian.
"I didn't realize what had happened to me at first," Brittany said. "I vaguely remember my mom and dad trying to explain to me."
"She didn't realize at the time that she was paralyzed," Sandy said.
"I thought it might be like this for a while, but I'm definitely getting out of this chair," Brittany said.
When she left the Children's Institute, almost four months after her accident, the McGraws had to make a few adjustments to their home to accommodate Brittany's new needs. A bathroom with a roll-in shower was installed, and because her bedroom was formerly located in the basement, a room was added onto the main floor of the house.
There are two types of quadriplegism, Don explained -- complete and incomplete. Brittany, he said, is considered an incomplete quadriplegic because she does have some movement below her neck.
Her occupational therapy focused on retraining her hands and arms to function as normal as possible, to allow her at least a limited use of those limbs.
"They wanted me to be able to write, do my own makeup, use a computer," Brittany said. "But they didn't think I would be able to do most of that."
"I can write by myself, I don't have to have a note-taker at school."
Her physical therapy consisted of a lot of upper body strength training.
"They were pretty much preparing me to never be able to get out of my chair," she said.
But Brittany and her parents weren't satisfied with the fate the traditional doctors and therapists had determined for her.
A few months after arrived home after her stay at the Children's Institute, in June 2006, Brittany began going to an alternative medicine clinic in Monroeville, where she began undergoing photon lighting therapy.
As Sandy explained it, the therapy uses a computer that focuses photons onto Brittany's neck injury site to stimulate the natural healing properties of the body's cells -- in Brittany's case, working with the autonomic nervous system.
"It's been successful," Sandy noted. "We started seeing improvements right away. She started leg and finger movements" after just a few treatments, and can now even sit up on her own.
At the clinic, Brittany also works with a trainer who is teaching her various martial arts techniques.
A new regime
When Brittany arrives in New Jersey to begin her treatments with Push to Walk, they told her she would spend at least three hours each day out of her chair, either with on-site therapists helping to steady her, or on different machines meant to help her through the movement of walking. Brittany will undergo the treatments five days a week, a minimum of three hours a day.
Each hour of therapy on the machines, though, costs $100 an hour, and the McGraws have initially decided to stay with the program for two weeks, "Until we can afford to go back," Sandy said.
A fee of $250 has also been tacked on, to cover the training that Sandy will receive on how to carry out the techniques after they bring Brittany home.
As their trip to the New Jersey clinic nears, the McGraws have planned a variety of fundraisers to help procure the money needed to cover Brittany's Push to Walk journey.
On May 16, the McGraws will sponsor a spaghetti dinner fundraiser from 3 to 6 p.m. at the community center in Derry.
Tickets are $6 for adults and $3 for children 10 and under, and include spaghetti, salad, bread, drink and dessert. A basket raffle will also take place at that time.
Sandy noted that Delallo's Italian market in Jeannette donated the pasta, sauce, cheese and salad dressing for the cause.
The family is also conducting a car wash fundraiser June 6, 1-3 p.m. in the Bi-Lo parking lot in Blairsville.
A bank account in Brittany's name has also been set up at the Ameriserv Bank in Derry. Donations can be sent to the bank, in c/o Brittany McGraw Push to Walk, at 112 S. Chestnut St., Derry, 15627.
Brittany's faith and resolution in regards to her confinement to a wheelchair have made her parents proud.
"I've never seen her get down," Don remarked about his daughter. "She's never once cried and said, 'Why me,' that I've ever seen."
"She has no self-pity," Sandy added.
"I'm pretty much just a normal person, in a chair," Brittany said, noting that she likes to hang out with her friends, talk to people on the computer, and play video games on the Wii with her younger sister, Ashley, 13.
The outpouring of support from her family, friends and community since her accident has been overwhelming, according the McGraws. Brittany said her best friend's family even purchased her parents a chair-friendly van.
"Her friends will take care of her, anything, she needs, if I'm not around," Sandy said.
Seton Hill University has also been a place of acceptance for Brittany, she said. She attends school full-time, with her mother driving her to her classes fives days a week.
"I really like it," she stated. "Seton Hill has really accommodated by needs."
Don and Sandy McGraw share their daughter's resoluteness in her belief that she will one day regain her ability to walk, regardless of their initial fears after the accident occurred.
"We were very, very scared," Sandy recalled. "We didn't know what the future was going to hold for her, but she's proven them wrong."
"Now it's nothing," Don said of his daughter's chair-bound state. "It's normal to us.
"But not for long," Sandy added.
"We know now that she will get out of her chair. I don't have a doubt in my mind."
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