John’s Story – Returning to the gym with a SCI

John O’Brien, who has a C4/C5 SCI, has turned his life around by joining his local gym

On Tuesday 21st August 2012, John O’Brien’s life changed forever when the car he was driving collided with loose cattle on the Navan to Kells Road. John (27), who is from Nobber, Co. Meath sustained a C4/C5 spinal cord injury which has left him with limited mobility in both his arms and legs.

John explained that he spent 10 months in total in hospital between the Mater Hospital in Dublin and also the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire.

“It was a very tough time and a lot of emphasis was put on recovery through occupational therapy and physiotherapy,” said John.

“At that time in hospital my physio consisted of going down to the gym and lying down on a tilt table to get my upper limbs and lower limbs stretched out in order to try and loosen them out. In particular, the muscles in my arms were very tight. I wasn’t really able to do anything much for myself.

“I remember seeing a lot of other patients going down to the proper gym to use the bikes and lift weights, but I was nowhere near that level. I was never asked, nor did anybody ever suggest to me to go down to the gym. I knew myself, my body just wasn’t able for it.”

John explained that accepting his ‘new normal’ was difficult but he realised that he had to look to the future in order to progress.

“Obviously my life has not turned out the way I would have liked it to but I have no choice but to make the most of it and try to be the best that I can be. As a wheelchair user, however, and as I have a C4/C5 spinal cord injury, there are certain limits to what I can do physically.”

John recently decided to set himself some goals to try to regain some mobility and get fit again by going to his local gym.

“It’s five years since I sustained my injury and I now find myself in my local gym ‘Gym An Ri’ in Kingscourt, Co. Cavan with a personalised gym program to suit my needs. I probably didn’t think this was ever going to happen.

“I started going to the gym back in January this year. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I remember thinking about it at Christmas time wondering would I be able for it? I was quite nervous at first but then I just thought why not give it a go, what’s the worst that can happen? So I went in and had a chat with the gym instructors. They asked me about my goals/what I wanted to get out of the gym and my exercise/physio regime and we went from there.

“After the first session I came home thinking it was really good and I thought I would give it a proper go. Seven months later I am still going to the gym twice a week on a Monday and Thursday, along with four physiotherapy sessions, three FES bike sessions and one swimming pool session a week. The FES bike sessions consist of working my arms, legs and abdominal muscles through electrical stimulation.”

John explained that going to the gym each week has really helped to improve his muscle memory and his physical strength.

“I am on an upper body weights programme where the focus is on improving, toning and building up strength in various muscle groups such as biceps, triceps, shoulders, wrists, chest and back. My weights started off light in January because it was all about building up my technique, but I have been progressing quite well over the last number of months.”

John credits his gym instructors with giving him the confidence to progress in the gym.

“My two gym instructors Sharon and Amanda are brilliant. They are always thinking of new ideas and new stretches and exercises that can help me improve in any way. My weights programme is varied each week which keeps everything interesting and it is something that I really enjoy. I haven’t got around to using the treadmill yet; I keep asking Sharon and Amanda but for some reason they won’t let me?! I just can’t figure it out!”

John explained that being a member of the gym has not only helped him physically but mentally too.

“It is not just about going to the gym, lifting weights and having that only focus, it’s the social aspect that I find really good too. I’m going in, I’m getting out of the house and I’m seeing different faces and chatting to people. As a big GAA fan myself, there is always a bit of banter and slagging going on regarding football matches that may have been on over the weekend involving Meath and Cavan as the gym is located in Kingscourt on the Meath/Cavan border.

“The main thing is that I enjoy it and that I am getting something good out of going to the gym. I never come home after a gym session thinking negatively about it. I suppose it helps put me in good form and it makes me feel like I have done something positive. It also gives me a sense of achievement.”

As part of his gym programme, John makes sure to track his gains by getting his instructors to measure him every few weeks.

“I get measurements taken every four – six weeks where my chest, stomach, arms and shoulders are  all measured to see if I am on the right track. Thankfully, everything is going well so far so hopefully I can keep this up.

“Sharon and Amanda also give me nutritional advice, which is very helpful. As a wheelchair user it is very important to watch what you eat and to be eating the correct food. I have learned a lot from going to the gym – from thinking more positively about my nutrition and diet, to physically becoming stronger and to mentally feeling better. It has also helped with my confidence. The social aspect of getting out of the house to go and do something productive and the fact that I can have a chat with people and have the craic is brilliant. I find it is important to have fun and to enjoy what you’re doing. It is so important to have the correct mix of maintaining a focus on improving yourself but also enjoying yourself at the same time.”

In terms of getting to and from the gym each week, John always enlists the help of one of his personal assistants (PAs).

“A PA will always come with me and they all know that the gym is something that I look forward to every Monday and Thursday.”

John said he is now looking to the future and is excited about where he can go next in terms of fitness.

“Next on my list is to go over to Prime Physio in Cambridge, England. The Prime Physio Specialist Therapy Centre is a physiotherapy led rehabilitation centre that deals with people who have suffered spinal cord injuries. The plan is to go over in September of this year for three days intensive physio to try and improve my upper body strength in whatever way I can.”

He added: “There is a lot in the news regarding mental health, and one way of certainly helping with that, I find, is by exercising. I suppose if there is anybody who is considering going to the gym or joining a sports team or just going out for a walk/jog in the evening but hasn’t made that step yet for whatever reason, why not give it a go? If I can do it I’m sure you can do it.”