Steve Ruetschle does not remember much of the day that turned his life upside down. However, he is well aware of how a Redmond-based organization is getting him back on track.
He was in a horrific motorcycle accident last June 17 on a road trip in North Carolina resulting in severe spinal cord injuries, specifically his C6 and C7 vertebrae. It wasn’t until about two weeks later when he was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle that he realized the extent of his injuries.
The 41-year-old could barely walk or breath on his own. The news was devastating.
“I cried buckets of tears,” Ruetschle said.
Ruetschle (pronounced rich-lee) had been living in the Philippines for five years but had spent the 12 years before that in the Northwest. He and his family wanted to be somewhere with a strong, supportive community during his rehabilitation, which they found once they returned to the area. It was through this community that the Ruetschles learned about Pushing Boundaries in Redmond — an intensive exercise therapy center focused on regaining function for those living with paralysis.
Pushing Boundaries differs from physical therapy, said events and public relations coordinator Shawna Hanson.
“They’re coming at it from an exercise standpoint, which is good and bad,” she said.
The benefit is that a client can do it for as long as they need it; whereas with physical therapy, an individual is limited to 14 or so visits, which is not enough for spinal cord injuries, Hanson said.
The downside of exercise science-based therapy, however, is that it is not recognized as a coverable expense with insurance companies and clients end up paying out of pocket. The cost is $80 an hour and clients come in for one- to two-hour sessions.
“It’s really hard on people,” Hanson said.
Ruetschle, who had worked as a pastor in the Philippines, said they lost their house in Seattle because of the overwhelming expenses. He now rents a house in Edmonds.
Puyallup resident Steve Gross has been coming to Pushing Boundaries for more than three years and said he does a lot of fundraising to cover the expense.
The 44-year-old broke his neck in 2005 as a result of two motorcycle accidents, two and a half months apart. He stumbled across Pushing Boundaries by accident while he was looking into other therapy options. Gross did everything from charity physical therapy centers to working with students at the University of Puget Sound. When he found Pushing Boundaries he thought the cost would be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
“I never thought I’d be able to afford it,” Gross said.
But Gross and many other clients receive financial assistance from a subsidy program that can cover up to half the cost of therapy at Pushing Boundaries.
Pushing Boundaries originally served only individuals with spinal cord injuries, but Hanson said they have expanded to include clients who have had strokes, those with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) as well as other forms of paralysis. The center currently serves about 50 clients who come from all over the state from Anacortes to Ellensburg. With its specialized equipment, some clients also come to Pushing Boundaries as a way to stay in shape. The nonprofit focuses on re-educating damaged nervous systems and rebuilding the injured body, which ultimately improves the lives of those with paralysis.
“The progress is slow for a lot of people, but the body can make new connections if it can retrain itself,” Hanson said.
These connections can mean regained movement and increased function and independence.
The nonprofit also has a community outreach program in which staff give community presentations to let people know their services are available as well as talk to college programs to let students know exercise science is a field they can study.
Jerry Daniels, one of the exercise therapists who works with Ruetschle, has been with Pushing Boundaries for about three and a half years. Before this, he had a business working with individuals with MS. Daniels said he was impressed with Ruetschle when he began at the center in September. People with C6 and C7 injuries usually have limited trunk and arm control, but Daniels said Ruetschle was able to get up and walk on his first day, “which blew (him) away.”
Hanson said a client’s time at Pushing Boundaries can range from a few months to a number of years — each person and injury is different. Two individuals could have the same classification of injury, but their physical abilities can be completely different.
With Ruetschle, the focus of the therapy is to strengthen his core, improve his gait and stride length as well as build his confidence. It’s been a slow process, but he is steadily improving. His sessions include 45 minutes on a Lokomat, a machine he is strapped into that automates the walking motion on a treadmill. Ruetschle said this therapy has been especially helpful.
“I try to just feel it,” he said. “Walking isn’t like getting on a bike again. You have to relearn it.”
Ruetschle said the most difficult part of his injuries has been the nerve pain, which he likened to sitting on ice, the pins-and-needles feeling that comes from a body part falling asleep and electrical shock running throughout the body. He also said it’s been hard not being able to hold his wife or pick up this three sons.
Despite these difficulties, Ruetschle has not lost his faith, saying his faith has encouraged and motivated him during his rehabilitation. Eventually, he wants to return to the Philippines as a pastor.
In addition to working with individual clients, Pushing Boundaries also provides support services for families and caregivers by providing a resource center for people to research and share information.
Ruetschle said all of this support has also helped him during his rehabilitation because there is a certain amount of isolation that comes with the situation and the lack of community could be difficult.
Gross agrees and said coming to Pushing Boundaries goes beyond treating the body.
“It’s a whole social network,” he said. “We share each others’ triumphs. We definitely learn from each other and we feed off each other.”
Loa Griesbach of south Everett has been a client at Pushing Boundaries for about three and a half years and said she has really benefitted from her time at the center. The 26-year-old was in a car accident when she was 18 that has greatly limited her physical abilities — saying she only has full control of her head.
This being the case, Griesbach said therapy at Pushing Boundaries has helped her stay healthy physically, but has also helped her mentally and emotionally. One part of the community she really credits is the therapists.
“I’m so thankful for them,” an emotional Griesbach said. “I don’t think they always get recognized for everything they do here.”
But in addition to providing this support, the therapists also provide friendship. Ruetschle and Daniels often joke with each other and spar verbally during sessions, but that doesn’t stop Daniels from pushing his client and telling him when a particular exercise wasn’t done well.
“Jerry has no mercy,” Ruetschle said with a grin on his face.