Making Strides - A Centre of Recovery

Originally interviewed for MOVE magazine in May, 2018

In March 2018, Sunday Night aired a story on the amazing recovery journey of paralysed motocross rider, Andy Hensel. Hensel’s rehabilitation, like previous NRL player Alex McKinnon’s, was undertaken with the team at Making Strides, a “centre of recovery” on the Gold Coast.

We spoke with Jack Jansson, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Service Development Manager at Making Strides, in 2018 about the amazing work that’s going on inside the spinal cord injury recovery centre.

ESSA is re-featuring this interview for our 30th anniversary as Jack and the team at Making Strides showcase just how our accredited professionals are changing lives every day.

Making Strides feels like a big, supportive family. Tell us about the community you work with.
It’s pretty amazing the relationships we all form with our clients.

Majority of our sessions are two hours and many of our clients are aged 16-24, so we spend a lot of time with like-minded people of a similar age to us. You end up making a lot of really good friends when you invest as much time into someone else’s quality of life like this.

Everyone has a heavy story and behind each story is a family affected by a life changing injury. But the amazing part is witnessing the resilience of these guys and their families. It really puts the small inconveniences, those ‘first world problems’, into perspective.

Even after my studies, I was so ignorant and naïve to the universal effect that a spinal cord injury has on a person and their family. Most people think SCI, and think wheelchair and loss of ability to walk. But there are fathers in here who haven’t hugged their children and can’t feel their children’s hugs, couples who can’t dance together, kids who can’t play sports with their friends, 18-year-olds who can’t access the nightclubs their friends are at, and an entire population who have a really hard time managing their own health and wellbeing due to the unavailability of adaptive exercise programs.

There are up to 8 sessions running simultaneously here and a lot of the guys have met each other in the spinal wards or are separated by only 1 or 2 degrees. It’s a tight knit community and the clients get a lot out of the group atmosphere. There is such a strong sense of comradery here, it’s a really cool place to call work.

Alex McKinnon
What has been a career highlight for yourself so far?
That is a really hard question. Every day I experience career highlights. The smallest improvement in exercise performance can have the greatest effect on someone’s quality of life. We have helped clients gain the ability to scratch their face, to eat and drink independently, to transfer into their cars, and regain their sense of freedom and independence. Those are the big wins we have. Anytime we can help someone increase their independence is a big deal for them, but also for us – it’s why we do this.

We often have to remind people of how able they still are after this injury. I think such a catastrophic injury and the loss of motor and sensory function imposes a sense of vulnerability, so sometimes we see big improvements just by increasing people’s confidence in their own remaining ability.

We have helped people stand for the first time in long periods using various supported set ups. Helping someone stand for the first time in front of their kids and having their partners or kids say they didn’t realise or remember how tall they are is always special. Helping couples have a standing cuddle or kiss is also pretty special.

Last year (2017), I helped Alex McKinnon stand at the altar with his wife, Teigan for their wedding ceremony. That was pretty special. We helped them stand for their photos also which turned out amazing. Those little things are all highlights of mine.
What advice do you have for students wanting to get involved in the field of neurological conditions?
We really enjoy the working relationships we have developed with many local and interstate universities. The best advice I can offer to students approaching any placement is to leave your ego at the door and keep an open mind. Learning from a text book is one thing, but putting that theory into practice, on a real person, is a whole different ball game. Especially the unpredictable and unique nature of neurological conditions. Two people with the same level of injury and same diagnosis can present worlds apart – no two are the same and everyone will respond differently to physical activity. So, be prepared to think outside the box at times using the knowledge you have of anatomy and physiology and their relations to whatever condition you are treating. Clinical reasoning and lateral thinking are key in this field.

The only other thing I will say is that initiative goes a long way in any job. Placements are no different. Appear keen to learn and master your craft. Even if you aren’t keen, fake it ‘til you make it!
Could you share another inspiring story with us?
One of my clients and biggest inspirations is a young guy named Ryan with a pretty severe C4 injury. His exposure to spinal cord injury is unlikely and bizarre. His father suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury after a motorbike accident on their property when Ryan was 10. He still walks with the use of a cane and experiences several lasting effects of the injury. Six years later, Ryan’s close childhood friend and training partner suffered a complete T5 injury in a race meet. He also happens to be a client at Making Strides, as is Ryan’s dad. If that wasn’t enough, three years after his friend, Ryan suffered an injury himself while riding a motocross track in preparation for an upcoming race meet.

It was obvious pretty early that he was a different breed of person. He pushed himself beyond fatigue and we learnt quickly that you cannot rely on his reported exertion. He completes 16 hours of activity based therapy here each week, as well as 3 hours of functional electrical stimulation cycling, and then add on another 1-2 hours of self-prescribed hand cycling and slaying our ski ergometer and that’s his training week. If he had it his way, he would do more, but I refuse to let him. His attitude is amazing, a truly old soul that doesn’t make sense until you meet the rest of his family. They are just genuinely nice, humble people.

As for the competitive, “never say die” nature, I’m not sure where it comes from, but from all reports he was better at winning from poor starts than he was from leading from the first lap.

When Ryan first came to us, he was extremely deconditioned after close to a year in hospital receiving very conservative treatment. He was keen to push himself and to be pushed, and his dad, John sat and watched all of his sessions serving as extra motivation. In the beginning, Ryan was one of those who couldn’t scratch his own face, let alone sit unassisted or push a manual chair. Gradually progressing the intensity and volume of his sessions, he has gone from strength to strength. Outworking everyone in the gym, he has surpassed people with injuries 1-2 levels lower than his. A true testament to his attitude and approach. He can now feed and drink with little to no assistance, and pushes himself around on any flat surface with relative ease. He sits on the bench independently when resting between exercises and, put simply, just moves much more effectively and efficiently. His attitude hasn’t changed, but you couldn’t possibly improve it, so that’s fine by us.

Thank you to Jack and the team at Making Strides for sharing their inspiring stories with us.

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Supporting health through exercise for 30 years 

To celebrate 30 years of Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), we are reflecting on 30 stories which commemorate the profound impact the exercise and sports science industry and its professionals have had on our communities, and how they have benefited the health landscape in Australia.

Click here to read more like this one