“Deep breaths, April. Deep breaths.”
April Ballentine nods, steeling herself. As she sits contained in the lab of the College of Kentucky’s Sports activities Drugs Analysis Institute (SMRI), her anticipation stirs up an unimaginable quantity of pure nervousness.
That is the day the Lexington native has been ready for, working for – for weeks, months, even years.
A crowd has gathered to witness this second, together with April’s family and friends, UK college, and bodily remedy college students from the UK School of Well being Sciences.
With nice trepidation, she shifts her physique into place, channeling her mindfulness to overcome this new process. Then, she is requested the million-dollar query.
April seems to be up on the bodily therapist in entrance of her, unflinching. “Sure.”
As we speak, the 51-year-old will stand and stroll for the primary time in additional than eight years.
In August 2013, April was out with mates at a cheerful hour when an ex-boyfriend confirmed up, gun in hand. As he raised it towards her face, she blocked his first shot. However within the chaos, she blacked out and fell to the bottom. He then unloaded the chamber on her in entrance of greater than 50 witnesses.
In some unspecified time in the future, April wakened, coated in a white sheet. Her ears had been ringing, and all she may utter was one phrase, again and again. “I’ve acquired to stand up.”
She then heard a voice gently reply, telling her to lie nonetheless, adopted by sirens. She could not breathe. Then, every part went black once more.
When April wakened for the second time, she was on the College of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital.
She had survived 5 gunshots at shut vary. A trauma staff, led by Trauma Medical Director Andrew Bernard, M.D., had stopped the bleeding – in the end saving her life.
As a result of she was hooked as much as a respirator, April’s medical staff gave her a dry erase board to speak.
“I wrote my daughter’s identify with a query mark, and so they stated she was high-quality,” April stated. “Then they requested me if there was something they might get for me. And I stated I used to be hungry as hell.”
That combating spirit stored April going throughout her stint within the ICU – a time she calls “one of many best challenges I’ve needed to undergo in my life.” After a number of weeks of intensive care, she was discharged to Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.
“That is once I discovered I used to be paralyzed,” April stated. “I had by no means heard that phrase earlier than – or if I did, it simply by no means registered as a result of I used to be so extremely medicated.”
At Cardinal Hill, April started working with a staff of therapists led by bodily medication and rehabilitation doctor Sara Salles, D.O. She needed to discover ways to stay together with her new regular: paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a T4 spinal twine damage.
“Dr. Salles defined every part to me,” April stated. “And I stated, ‘OK.’ I by no means requested why. I by no means cried about it. The ache was extra overbearing than the rest I may have imagined as a result of it was fixed. [It’s] one thing I by no means need anybody to expertise.”
April spent 90 days on the facility. She’d heard of corporations that made robotic exoskeletons, which allowed customers to face up and stroll once more with bracing and assist from the higher physique. Often throughout her remedy, April would attempt to stand, holding herself together with her arms.
It was far more durable than she had anticipated.
“It was so troublesome,” she stated. “I recall attempting to push myself up, and it nearly appeared not possible. That dream was shot actually simply. I needed to study that I needed to stay for right now and never tomorrow. As a result of I lived for strolling, I could not stay within the second.”
In October 2015, April was talking about her expertise at a church to boost consciousness for Home Violence Consciousness Month. Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt heard her story and approached April with a proposition.
“She stated, ‘I would like you on my staff,'” April stated. “She’s been a fantastic advocate for home violence consciousness for a really very long time.”
April started working with the Sheriff’s workplace, first as a volunteer, then as an worker. She now serves as a sufferer advocate consumption specialist in Amanda’s Heart, a 24-hour level of contact for victims of home violence situated within the Fayette County District Courthouse. On this position, she helps guarantee victims have entry to the sources and assist they want.
April describes her present work as “a calling” that has helped her heal, course of and perceive her personal trauma.
“I perceive what it is wish to be a sufferer, and I perceive what it is wish to be afraid and to not be afraid,” she stated. “And I imagine that I am a great useful resource to assist somebody escape, or to assist them perceive the intense behavioral points they’re experiencing.”
April additionally started volunteering at Cardinal Hill, taking part in a mock “affected person” for bodily remedy college students to discover ways to work with individuals who have spinal twine accidents.
“[I want to show] that for anybody with a spinal twine damage, life is feasible and life will be good,” she stated. “And I make it enjoyable, too. I feel my persona suits as a result of I break the ice, make them giggle, and say the surprising.”
A number of years in the past, she was contacted by ReWalk Robotics, an organization that makes bionic gadgets to assist folks with spinal twine accidents. ReWalk’s exoskeleton has been accessible since 2014 and was the primary such gadget to be cleared for market within the U.S. by the Meals and Drug Administration. The corporate was searching for a possibility to begin a program in Lexington. April handed their data on to her contacts at Cardinal Hill, probably not anticipating to listen to something additional.
However that contact lit a spark in her. She determined to begin specializing in her bodily health.
“I began pondering, ‘OK, I’ve acquired to take higher care of myself,'” April stated. “After which COVID hits. I stated, ‘I am not going to sit down right here and do nothing.'”
April sought out a coach and set to work, noting playfully that one among her targets was to develop “Angela Bassett arms.” Over the previous two years, she’s misplaced 180 kilos and developed unimaginable upper-body and core power. Though April’s spinal twine damage is at her T4 vertebra – round chest top – she nonetheless has some sensation and power in her core, which helps her do issues that many others together with her identical damage classification cannot do.
Final August, April started to construct power in one other manner.
She purchased her personal home, regaining the independence she misplaced that traumatic day in August 2013.
“Taking over my well being and having the ability to stay independently with such a excessive damage degree made me dream,” she stated, “and acknowledge, and keep in mind that I can do something.”
Denise O’Dell is comparatively new to UK, having joined the School of Well being Sciences as an affiliate professor final summer season. As a bodily therapist, she makes a speciality of working with sufferers who’ve neurological impairments, together with mind and spinal twine accidents. O’Dell teaches college students in UK’s Physician of Bodily Remedy program and works with sufferers within the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute’s ALS Multidisciplinary Clinic.
O’Dell took a bunch of UK college students to Cardinal Hill final fall, the place April was volunteering once more as a mock affected person. Along with the bodily remedy methods college students will carry out, O’Dell says she usually reminds them how necessary it’s to hearken to their sufferers throughout remedy.
And listening to April’s story, O’Dell and her college students had been impressed.
“I may see the drive that she has to present again to society, to higher herself, to remain engaged,” O’Dell stated. “Given my background and having labored with loads of people with spinal twine damage, I noticed sparks there that I hadn’t seen in others for fairly a while.”
Inspired by April’s general power, O’Dell requested if she’d ever stood up. April had been medically cleared by way of bone density screenings for standing – with assist – in her energy chair, however she had by no means tried to face one other manner. O’Dell introduced her to a set of parallel bars.
“Denise was like, ‘We will do one thing completely different,'” April stated. “She stated, ‘I’ll have you ever stand utilizing these parallel bars.’ And I simply sort of checked out her and stated OK. I am open to it.”
With O’Dell supporting her legs, April grabbed the bars and pushed up right into a standing place.
“She actually simply popped up into standing,” O’Dell stated. “The primary time she was up for 2 or three minutes. That is fairly extraordinary for somebody who hasn’t performed it for thus lengthy.”
Shortly after, April requested to face once more.
“Although we had been out of time, we did it once more,” O’Dell stated. “The scholars had been like, ‘We’ll keep.’ They might see that this was a greater studying second than I feel they’d anticipated.”
In a earlier job, O’Dell had been a part of a staff that helped consider and practice sufferers following spinal twine damage, together with evaluations for standing and use of exoskeletons. Based mostly on her expertise – and what she had simply witnessed – she thought April could possibly be an excellent candidate. She made some calls to her colleagues at UK HealthCare and the School of Well being Sciences and contacted ReWalk to give you a plan for April to trial an exoskeleton gadget.
“Subsequent factor I knew, I had a telephone name with a date,” April stated. “So right here we’re.”
Again within the SMRI lab, April’s huge second is right here. She’s formally “trialing” the exoskeleton, which is able to assist the ReWalk staff decide if she’s an eligible candidate to start coaching with the gadget. From the group, a voice calls out: “Use these Angela Bassett arms!”
April smiles and presents a correction: “These are April Ballentine arms.”
She swings a set of forearm crutches again, tilts ahead, and prepares to make use of her appreciable higher physique power. The exoskeleton beeps and whirs. Guided by therapists from ReWalk, April pushes into the crutches and powers as much as a full standing place. Now, she’s standing taller than the therapist in entrance of her.
Her viewers cheers.
From there, the staff takes April by way of a few of the fundamental actions she might want to grasp: holding a impartial standing place, shifting her weight laterally, pivoting, and at last, strolling. The machine will transfer her legs for her, however she is going to use the forearm crutches to assist, steadiness and information her physique as she strikes.
When it is time to stroll, the therapists clear a path within the room and inform April she’ll be strolling towards a person in a blue go well with – Bernard, the UK trauma surgeon, who stopped by to indicate his assist. Seeing him, her eyes fill with tears.
April’s first few steps are huge, lurching. The staff stops to recalibrate the machine to her gait. Her coach, David Asbury, comes to face by her facet and coach her by way of the stroll. She grins.
“Hey, I am taller than you!” she exclaims to Asbury, and everybody laughs.
With the machine recalibrated, she tries once more. This time, she takes off, strolling throughout the room, solely stopping when she reaches a curve that requires a pivot. Sitting right down to relaxation, she’s overcome with emotion as her family and friends hug and congratulate her.
“I am simply overwhelmed proper now,” she says, voice shaking. “It has been eight-and-a-half years.”
For sufferers with a spinal twine damage, a ReWalk exoskeleton is not simply concerning the likelihood to stroll once more. The mobility it presents comes with plenty of well being advantages that may enhance the affected person’s general high quality of life – higher circulation, muscle spasticity, bowel and bladder operate, and even nerve ache.
“The chance to face and stroll is multifaceted,” O’Dell stated. “Physiologically, being upright, your gastrointestinal system works higher. Your coronary heart, your lungs work higher. A person resembling April will price their high quality of life greater from a participation and well being standpoint.”
However April nonetheless has extra work forward of her.
Though insurance coverage will cowl the price of coaching with the gadget, it doesn’t cowl the price of the gadget itself for non-veterans. ReWalk continues to pursue insurance coverage protection alternatives, however for now, April might want to cowl the price of her personal exoskeleton.
To assist fundraise for the gadget, April is working by way of a nonprofit group known as I GOT LEGS, which arrange a donation web page for her. As soon as she has her down fee, she will start working with ReWalk-trained bodily therapists to turn into proficient with the exoskeleton, a course of that often takes 20-30 classes.
She is not deterred by the associated fee. The place there is a will, there is a manner, and April Ballentine at all times finds a manner.
“All through the final 9 years, there have been folks saying, ‘You’ll be able to’t do that, you possibly can’t do this’ – no matter,” April stated. “I’ll show you fallacious each time.”
Apart from, she has one other bold objective to fulfill. In November, April’s daughter is getting married. And she or he’s decided to stroll her daughter down the aisle.
It is that dedication that makes her such a lightweight and position mannequin for the neighborhood, stated Bernard. Regardless of her tragedy, she has persevered.
“She was a sufferer, however she’s not a sufferer anymore,” Bernard stated. “This can be a starting, you understand? [Her situation] was minutes of disaster, after which it is a lifetime of potential impression.”
When she wakened underneath that sheet in 2013, April had just one thought in her thoughts: I’ve acquired to stand up. Eight-and-a-half years later, she’s performed it. And she or he’s hungry to do it once more.
She simply wanted that little further push – one which got here within the type of an opportunity assembly with somebody who noticed her potential and had the suitable expertise to make it occur.
“[Denise] is fairly phenomenal,” April stated. “Lately, I instructed her, thanks for seeing my means as a substitute of my incapacity. If it wasn’t for her, I’d not be right here right now.”
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