Patient Stories

Michael L.

It was just before the holidays on December 17, 2019. Most of us were shopping, decorating, and preparing to spend time with family. 38-year-old Michael Lowery was beginning the most significant challenge of his life.

He was working out at the gym, lifting heavy free weights. In the middle of his heaviest set, someone called his name. Instinctually, he turned his head, “which is a no-no and I instantly felt a pinched nerve in my neck and I started to fall. When I went to push back up with all I had, that’s when it snapped my neck,” Michael recalls.

A native of Martinsville, Virginia, Michael was rushed to a local emergency room where he immediately underwent surgery. Following the first surgery, the doctors realized his case was much more severe and transported him to VCU Health, where a second surgery was performed. “When I woke up, I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t breathe, so they put me on a ventilator. I was on a ventilator for a month and a half. My family had already made [after-life] plans because they didn’t think I was going to pull through.”

Michael was left with an American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Classification C incomplete spinal cord injury. He has a metal plate inside of his neck from his C3 to C6 vertebrae, but he also has a witty sense of humor, a positive attitude, and determination to continue getting better. “At first, I was just happy to wiggle my toes, that was the best thing ever, but then I started to think, ‘This isn’t so bad. I can work my way up and I believe I can handle this,’” he said.

On March 3, Michael transferred to the rehab floor at VCU Health. “It’s emotional talking about,” Michael shares. “When I first got on the rehab floor, I couldn’t hardly do anything. I literally had to learn everything like I was a newborn—how to walk, how to talk.”

What ensued was a lot of hard work in therapy, mentally and physically. Starting small, his therapists used different strength bands in occupational therapy to work on hand strength and small movements on the mat in physical therapy to build his strength back up.

“Michael and I were able to use every rehab technique under the sun,” said Ben Kiesler, OTR/L, who has been working with Michael since the beginning of his rehab stay. “We developed an exercise routine he liked performing and we shocked his muscles to help him regain his strength early on. The majority of our sessions focused on getting comfortable with his balance and practicing techniques for living independently.”

“I used to be scared to death to [do things like] lean over to do a pressure release because I was so scared I was going to flip out of my wheelchair,” Michael adds. “And then one day I said, you know what? I’m going to practice this until I get it right.”

In June, Michael was one of the first patients to transfer from VCU Health to Sheltering Arms Institute. He began losing his fears and finding hope as he started to see some of his muscles return. “As he got into the routine of rehab and started seeing gains, he really challenged himself to push further and he started talking about all of the things he was excited to do, like joining the wheelchair rugby team or renting an apartment. He became very forward thinking and I was so glad to see that,” added Ben.

“Here at Sheltering Arms Institute, they have a lot of neat machines that helped me get even more movement back since I’ve been here,” he says about the state-of-the-science technologies. “The [Hocoma] Lokomat is awesome! I was looking at it thinking, ‘How in the world am I going to do this?’ They hook me up to a harness, lift me up in the air, and lower my feet down onto a treadmill… I can really kick my leg out like I’m walking and I thought that was so awesome.”

Throughout his recovery, Michael has been steadfast in documenting his progress, being sure to record videos almost daily to help him reflect on how far he’s come and to send his family updates. “I went from not being able to do anything and now I’m walking with a walker. [I hope that] families whose sons or husbands or mothers have a spinal cord injury, they can look at these videos and maybe my story will help motivate them and give them hope.”

Michael and his care team have also placed a lot of emphasis on exercises that help him learn new ways to be independent such as practicing cooking, learning to lie on his back, using the restroom by himself, and bathing himself. “I can transfer onto my wheelchair, roll myself into the shower, do a lateral transfer onto the bench, shower, dry off, get back in the chair, get back in the bed, get dressed, and hop back in my chair again,” he says of his routine.

He hopes to live on his own, become a peer mentor for other spinal cord injury survivors, and one day, walk again. “Being able to show my moves, my skills on the mat to another wheelchair person—that is great. I want to devote my time into coming back here and helping other spinal cord injury patients. God has given me a gift of making people laugh and putting smiles on people’s faces, so that’s my job, that’s what I do.”