MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
I'm Sabri Ben-Achour in for Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, we're bringing you a show all about new beginnings. And in this next part of the show we're gonna get a little personal. We'll talk with a nun who left a life in the convent to become a mother and a businesswoman, and we'll go job hunting with a D.C. teen who just got out of the city's juvenile facility and is trying to leave his old mistakes behind him.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
First, though, we're gonna spend some time with Nick Balenger.
MR. NICK BALENGER
So what you think we're gonna do, walker or parallel bars again?
I met up with Nick earlier this week at the Med Star National Rehabilitation Hospital on Irving Street in northwest D.C. He was out of his wheelchair on a large padded table, legs in the air, as a physical therapist pushed her full body weight into his feet to stretch them out.
Man, that hurts.
Katie Seward is his therapist. She's twisting and stretching his limbs as she always does before a session.
MS. KATIE SEWARD
To maintain his range of motion. So, you know, if he can't move his joints through a range through him activating muscles, then it's our job to kinda stretch and keep that, so that when he does get that strength back, that he's not dealing with contractures or other things that would limit his mobility.
Nick is 17 and a high school student from Burke, Va. Despite having been a star baseball player and a little league coach for years, he is pale and very thin. He came to this hospital paralyzed from the neck down.
I have feeling everywhere except, uh, from my chest down, I can't feel temperature.
In the cafeteria, over a lunch of fried chicken and French fries, Nick and his father Steve tell me how it happened.
I was at Big Beach in Hawaii and running into the ocean. And I dove into a wave and the water depth was a lot shorter than I thought it was. So I dove in, head my head on the bottom and, uh, I was just floating there, immediately paralyzed. And my dad, luckily, was like 10 feet away and pulled me out of the water. And then all the lifeguards came, took me away in a stretcher and then off to the ambulance, into the hospital.
Were you awake during that time?
Um-hum, I was conscious the whole time. So I remember everything, cracking my neck on the bottom, floating in the water waiting for someone to get me and then, yeah, I remember every second.
What were you thinking?
Well, the whole time I was thinking -- my dad was just like, oh, it's just a shock to the system, just a shock to the system. So I was thinking I'd be able to go play golf a couple days later and I guess I just didn't realize the severity of my accident.
When Nick got back to D.C. from Hawaii on August 13, by air ambulance, he was almost totally paralyzed from the neck down. He could only muster the tiniest of twitches in his extremities.
DR. JUSTIN BURTON
Nick has a cervical spinal cord injury.
Dr. Justin Burton is his physician.
Technically, his spinal cord was intact, but the--the fibers and the cells themselves were actually already injured.
But what is remarkable about Nick is that he's getting better. He can move his arms now, even cutting his own chicken at lunch. It's not graceful, but he can do it.
The amount of recovery that he's had is more than most. And so that's how Nick's a little atypical.
Dr. Burton says the next few months will reveal just how much Nick will regain the ability to move.
We generally see the most recovery within the first six months and so you should see the most recovery in the first kind of three months. You don't see as much motor recovery in that second kind of six-month period, but I generally say you give it at least a year.
Steve Balenger says the road ahead for his family will be an expensive one. Accommodations for college, wheelchairs, therapy, it can all add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but as Nick says, his friends haven't let him down. His classmates, teachers, rival teams, baseball coaches, even strangers have stepped up to help.
MR. STEVE BALENGER
When we were out there in Maui, one of his teachers called out to a local pizza parlor and had dinner catered to us in ICU. My wife works at the Four Seasons in Georgetown and they've been unbelievable. They're actually gonna do a dinner I believe in January. Five celebrity chefs from town are gonna be doing a benefit dinner. The baseball community set up the golf tournament the other day. And Lake Braddock's been unbelievable.
MR. STEVE BALENGER
You know you never think something like this is gonna happen to you, but it has. And the support from everybody is pretty amazing.
Back in the therapy room Nick is wearing a gray t-shirt. In black stencil print it reads...
Pain is weakness leaving the body. One of my Aunt's friends gave it to me.
Movement is exhausting for Nick. Standing is exhausting, but with a few deep breaths he launches himself from the padded table up to stand with the help of a walker.
One, two, three.
An electrical contraption called the Bioness helps him with limited movements. It's a collection of sensors and electrodes that send pulses into his muscles.
This is just practice to get me walking normal again, but when I step with my left foot, the, uh, electrical things just stimulates the nerve to kick my foot up.
Nick struggles to put one foot in front of the other. His left leg is weaker than his right and it drags. He manages to move forward though. Sometimes with a gentle nudge from a therapist's foot. He makes it back to the table and his leg is quivering in a spasm.
How you feel?
Awful, he says quietly.
I need some water. I feel nauseous.
Steve Balenger lifts up a cup of water to his son's mouth.
Do you know how far that was? 60 feet, 'cause I counted the tiles.
One step at a time Nick is surpassing the expectations of his doctors, his therapist and his family.
Every second of every day has changed for Nick. And every second of every day, um, Nick works hard and he doesn't look back and he doesn't look forward, he just grinds. And I'm real proud of him, real proud of the way he's taken this journey on and just grinds.
Nick's goal is to be able to walk across the stage at his high school graduation in June. You can find the link to Nick's website and photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
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