Experience Paves the Way for Teen's Remarkable Recovery
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
Brock Archuleta earned Pitcher of the Year as a high school sophomore, so he’s no stranger to long hours spent readying for the rigors of baseball season. But all that hard work now seems like a cakewalk compared to his latest challenge. For the last year, Archuleta has been battling back from a paralyzing spinal cord injury.
“One day of therapy is like a week of baseball practice,” says Archuleta. “It feels like you just got through running 3 miles.” Coaching Archuleta’s comeback have been the experienced staff of the spinal cord injury program at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson.
They began working with the young athlete a scant 72 hours after he tumbled headfirst over the handlebars of a fourwheeler and fractured his neck. And the results so far have been remarkable.
As he began his senior year at Richland High School, the 17-year-old could walk with the aid of crutches. And he has even thrown a few batting practices from the seat of his wheelchair. Before Archuleta arrived at Methodist, doctors gave him a dismal prognosis. “I couldn’t move anything from the neck down and they said I’d be like that forever,” remembers Archuleta. “My mama hit the floor.”
Kim King wasn’t down for long, though. As Archuleta moved to Methodist, his mom was at his side, soaking in everything she could about the rehab process. She also was discovering just how tenacious her son could be.
“I’m so in awe of Brock,” she said. “He keeps me up. He is so strong.”
Because Archuleta’s fifth cervical vertebra was fractured, he was expected to lose the use of muscles in his arms, hands, wrists, chest, abdomen and legs. Then a nerve test revealed that his injury was “incomplete,” meaning he might regain movement below the injury site.
“I was told to move my right foot like I was pushing a gas pedal and my right leg moved,” Archuleta said. “It shocked the doctor. He stumbled backwards.”
One factor in Archuleta’s favor is he was given a drug called 4-amino-pyridine soon after his injury. Dr. Michael Winkelmann, a rehabilitation medicine physician at Methodist, said the potassium channel blocking agent seems to increase a person’s ability to recover from a spinal cord injury.
Archuleta also was able to take advantage of Methodist’s weight-supporting, treadmill gait-training system. As he dangled from a contraption resembling a parachute harness, physical therapists “walked” his legs along the moving treadmill.
Methodist physical therapist Lisa Barnes said the system helps retrain the body in the reciprocal motion of walking and also improves endurance and cardiovascular health. Because it’s a weight-bearing exercise, it’s also good for bone density and it helps keep spasms under control.
As he tackled the demands of therapy, Archuleta stayed positive. And his easygoing nature and lazy grin “stole everybody’s heart,” Barnes said. He was like the little brother everybody wanted to help. Kim Willis, his most recent physical therapist at Methodist, even pitched in to proof his term papers this past spring.
Archuleta’s plight touched the Richland community, as well, spawning fervent prayers and ardent fund-raising. Students bought T-shirts that had “Brock” and praying hands on the front, and “Archuleta” and his No. 9 on the back. His teammates also wore No. 9 on their caps this past baseball season. And when they made the playoffs, Archuleta was invited to toss out the first pitch.
Methodist occupational therapist Ashlee Ricotta said Archuleta’s competitive spirit has served him well. “He never wants to quit,” she said. “The more we challenge him, the harder he tries.”
A big goal was getting back to driving and Ricotta helped Archuleta get the necessary modifications for his vehicle. He now ferries himself to school in a Ford Ranger pickup, complete with a left foot accelerator and a special wheelchair lift. Willis recently incorporated the truck into one of Archuleta’s therapy sessions by having him give it a good washing. “Whatever he was interested in before, we’ve tried to get back to those activities,” she said. “We worked on him standing and throwing the baseball and he plays Nintendo all the time.”
Archuleta continues his therapy at home, too, thanks to the support of his ever-vigilant Mom. “If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t do half the stuff I’m supposed to do,” Archuleta said. “She pushes me.” To maintain his walking ability, Archuleta has vowed to use crutches whenever he’s at home. He pilots his manual wheelchair through the crowded hallways between classes. And he has a power wheelchair stashed away at school for jaunts to the baseball field.
“I’ll throw some batting practice,” he explained. “And I like to tell the coach what he is doing wrong.” And it’s a good bet Coach Scott Rimes will listen. He’s already familiar with Archuleta’s winning ways. “He has done a remarkable job (of recovering),” said the Richland High School baseball coach. “I knew if he took the same attitude he did on the mound that he would battle back.”
Brock Archuleta back in class at Richland High School.
Physical therapist Kim Willis assists 17-year-old Brock Archuleta as he walks at Methodist Outpatient Therapy Center in Flowood.