I WAS BORN İN IRAN, BUT FOR MOST OF MY LIFE, THE SAN FRANCİSCO AREA HAS BEEN HOME.
My father had gone to UC Berkeley. then moved back to Iran, though eventually our family returned to California.
Iran ıs a mountainous country, and my parents brought their love of hiking with them. Many vveekends, we went on a trek or camped out as a family. I loved being active and outdoors.
When I finished college in Boston. I returned to the Bay Area. After a couple of years in the food/wine industry, I became a trip leader for an active-tourism company. I loved traveling — and I speak fıve languages-so it was a phenomenal way to spend my tvventies. But after fıve years of bouncing around the planet. I enrolled in the MBA program at the Unıversity of San Francisco with an emphasis on environmental sustaınabilıty and social responsibility.
A LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT
İn July 2012, I was working for a solar energy company. I had started dating a terrific woman named Brita. and had just finished an incredible 60-mile backpacking trip with some colleagues in the eastern Sierra Mountains. After dinner, we returned to a friend’s apartment only to discover he was locked out. He mentioned that his third- floor balcony door was open. Looking at the stacked balconies I said. ‘Oh. I can do that!’ and started scrambling up.
I remember pulling myself up onto his balcony; the next thing I knew I was lying on the sidewalk belovv. My friends were hoverıng above me. telling me not to move. I don’t know if my grip failed—I think my sanity has blacked that out-but I fell 30 feet and landed on my neck. I had barely a scratch anyvvhere else.
FROM HIKING TO HOSPITAL
When I woke up ın the hospıtal, I heard a beep-beep-beep and thought it was my phone-but then I saw my vvorried family at my bedside, and I couldn’t feel or move most of my body. My head and neck were encased in a halo brace and the beeping was coming from the machines trackıng my vital signs. Heavy- duty medications were numbing excruciating pain in my neck. İt turns out I had shattered the C5 and C6 vertebrae in my neck. and it was incredible that I was alive. From the chest down, I couldn’t move or feel anythıng—except for my arms. vvhich I could lift a little, and my fingers. vvhich I could vvıggle a tiny bit.
Tvvo days later, I undervvent a seven-hour surgery to remove ali the pieces of broken bone and reconstruct my spine by fusing together four vertebrae (C4 to C7) vvith titanıum rods and screvvs-basically piece те back together. İt vvas pretty gnarly! But I vvas desperately hoping that after the surgery. I could move again.
A Grim Diagnosis
When l vvoke up. I vvas told the surgery had gone vvelL.but that I should prepare to never be able to stand or vvalk again. İt vvas devastating to hear. No one knevv how much I vvould recover.
To go from being on top of a 12,000-foot mountain to lying almost dead in the hospital, unable to move anything below my chest. was a very. very difficult change.
While I was in the ICU, I started physical therapy. squeezing a little red ball, barely. över and över again. Once out of ICU, I was out of bed every day, even though it took two hours to get те up and in a vvheelchair. Most people with my injury lose use of their shoulders. arms and hands.
I was very lucky to stili have a bit of movement in those areas. and I dıd thousands of repetitions every day to get more.
After five vveeks. with my arms and shoulders a little stronger. the physical therapists began vvorking with те so I could transfer myself from bed to vvheelchair to toilet. I stayed in the hospital and its rehab unit for a total of seven vveeks. İt should have been much longer. Way too much of my care vvas put on my parents vvhen I came home to live vvith them. They had to find a vvheelchair- accessible apartment. and quickly learn hovv to care for a paralyzed 30-year-old.
After I was discharged, insurance provided just one hour a week of physical therapy. So I researched addıtional options to supplement that. I started neural acupuncture treatments two times a week. I went to the only spınal cord injury (SCI) rehab gym ın the Bay Area a couple days a week. To pay for ali of it. I cashed out my 401(k), and my friends held fund-raısers.
And on the recommendation of ali the specialists, I would frequently visualize myself doing a physical workout. By sending signals from the brain to the lovver body—by thinking and trying to move those limbs—it’s believed that one can repair the neural pathvvays.
But spinal cord recovery is incredibly slow—nerve regeneration happens by millimeters a month. You have to do a movement över and över and över, and maybe three months later you’ll see a small improvement. On top of that. the burning pain that comes with nerve regeneration can be unbearable. İve alvvays been a positive. charge-ahead person. but I had to use every bit of inner strength I had to not give up.
Then one morning, six months after my fail. I was going through my usual visualizations: flexing my feet. bending my knee. rotating my legs in and out. This time, though. something felt different. I lifted myself up to sitting and threvv off the covers.
I stared at my right foot and saw that I could move my pinky toe slovvly in and out. İt was an incredible moment. I called out and soon my parents saw it. too. To fınally see a flicker of hope lit a huge fire in me. I’d move that toe 100.000 times if I had to.
A TOUGH ANNIVERSARY
My recovery was my full-time job. and I went at it full-throttle. Stili, the first anniversary of my fail was rough. İt was devastating to think that an entire year had gone by since I last willingly moved my legs. To thınk about how physical I had been. and what my body had now become…it was scary and depressing to realize how much had changed.
But. as always, I would make myself get some perspective. Most people with my injury can’t use their hands or arms at ali. So every time I wanted to complaın about not being able to strum my guitar, or chop onions easily. Г d think how lucky I was to have some function. It’s one of the first things other SCI (spinal cord injury) patients recognize when they see me. ‘Dude. you’re а C5? Your hands look pretty good!“
FINDING PİLATES… AND НОРЕ
İn November 2013, 16 months after the injury. a friend who also had a SCI told me how much he was benefiting from Pilates taught by a woman in Havvaii. Long story short. I flew to Maui to spend two weeks with Alejandra Monsalve at Body Wellness Hawaii. She had developed Neurokinetic Pilates. a system that encompasses various movement practices. but ıs done on Pilates equipment and uses Pilates as its cornerstone.
On the first day, Alejandra assessed what abilities I did have. She told me that if I engaged the parts of the body that I could control. I could then utilize the connected muscles. nerves and fascia. and establish new neural connections. And that’s exactly what happened. Alejandra would strap each of my legs to a spring. and rotate them in circles. On the Trap Table. she and her assistants vvould guide my body to do the Pull Down and Pull Through.
Each session, she vvould push me to my limit.
Över the course of just two vveeks. I vvas able to establish nevv connectıons, prımarily vvith my abs and core. Although others vvere making my body do the movements, my leg vvould react, the muscles vvould contract. and I vvas able to feel a greater connection to my glutes. quads and legs. Pilates vvas unquestionably the best therapy Г d ever done, and it vvas tough to leave Havvaii and the hope it represented.
İn May 2013. six months after the first visit, I returned to Havvaii for four vveeks. This time, my breakthrough vvas on the CoreAlign. Several people, ıncluding Alejandra. vvould prop me up as I held onto the ladder. Even though I vvas a big wobbly mess. after tvvo vveeks, I vvas able to kick. kick. kick the board behind me (vvith a teacher’s foot also on the board). and that was the beginning of my gluteus and calves starting to connect. İt was fantastic!
While I was in Hawaii the second time, my gırlfriend Brita came to visit. Shortly before my injury, she had gone to Lebanon for her master’s work. While I was in the hospital. I told her she should get out of the relationship. but she stuck with me through everything. So it was a big deal that I could surprise her with my progress.
A WONDERFUL MILESTONE
VVithin a couple months, the work I had done in Hawaii, and my increased arm and hand strength. enabled me to stand up and hold myself upright for a few mınutes using a vvalker. That was a huge milestone. It’s also when I made a big decision. İn September 2014. a little över two years after my accident. I proposed to Brita. standing up. vvith Lake Tahoe behind me. She saıd yes!
Soon after. a friend asked me to give a talk about my accident to some CEOs and venture capitalists from Silicon Valley. I went on to do a number of other speaking engagements, vvhich led to an invitation to give a TED talk in September 2015.Г d never done anything like that. but it led to more public speaking. İt felt good to work on something beyond my recovery. and even get some applause!
норе comes то CALIFORNIA
My recovery got a big boost in early 2015 when Alejandra came to California to do a vvorkshop. Louise Johns, Claudia Moose and Katie Santos. the ovvners of a nearby Pilates studio called Absolute Çenter in Lafayette. met her and observed the work she was doing with me. They were so impressed that they offered me the use of their studio and their support as teachers. I started going to Absolute once a week. The CoreAlign, with its sliding carts under my feet and the ladder to hold myself up. became the fundamental tool for my rehab.
WORKING TOWARD WALKING
By last summer. I could stand and exercise at the CoreAlign. with help. for half an hour before becoming exhausted. What I love about vvorking on the CoreAlıgn is that it allovvs me to get my body into posıtions that challenge my flexibility. balance and endurance. When l’m trying to pull the cart with my foot. I can feel the neurological connection with my body every time. which is why I keep doing it.
Much of the work l’m doing now is findıng new exercises and movements that will help me learn to walk again. My big problem is hip flexion. so I work on specific aspects of that. which contributes to being able to take steps.
For instance. П1 do my own versıon of the Running Man. Г11 hold myself upright with the ladder, the PT will sit rıght behınd me. and my feet and the PT’s feet will be on the boards. We alternate lunges back and forth on both legs. trying to get faster at sendıng those neurological signals from my brain vvhile maintaining good alignment and body position. My strength keeps improving. and l’m able to maintain a standing position for a longer time.
MY ROUTINE TODAY
I now go to Absolute Çenter once a week. and a PT friend works with me three days a week at my parents’ home on my own CoreAlign. I stili use a wheelchair. but my upper body is quite strong, so l’m able to do a lot of movements wıth my core. My hands are stili quite impaired. but I can do some things I enjoy or need for day-to-day tasks.
A BUSY, GRATEFUL LIFE
İn addition to my rehab and public speaking. three PT friends and I have created a nonprofit. No Limits Collaboratıve, aimed at filling the void that SCI patients face when dıscharged from the hospital.
We provide resources, therapy suggestions and support. Our goal is to offer physical rehab space as well. İ m also finishing a book about my recovery that’s going to be published this summer.
As horrific and challengıng as this accident was, it made me realize I am blessed with the most amazıng fiancee, parents and a community of friends and family who have supported me for the past five years. I also know 100 percent that vvithout Alejandra and Pilates I vvouldn’t be where I am right now. Pilates has given me something incredible—the hope and belief that ıf I keep at it. Г11 walk again. PS