New York/New Jersey VA Health Care Network
VISN 2: Veterans' Wellness, Summer 2014
|‘I Didn’t Walk for 20 Years’
Confined to a wheelchair for 20 years, Dennis Gravelle is now ready to walk down the aisle on his wedding day this summer. This inspiring Veteran is back on his feet, thanks to the care he received from VA — and his motivation to never give up.
On the day after his 35th birthday in December 1993, Gravelle’s legs buckled under him. After collapsing several more times, he couldn’t get up again.
Doctors said he had a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, a fusion of the spine. He could no longer walk and lost his construction job. He found himself in a wheelchair.
“I was very frustrated that I could no longer do what I wanted to do,” recalls Gravelle, now 55, of Wellsville. He was depressed and seldom left his home.
But two years after his diagnosis, he decided that he wanted to make a change and started exercising to gain strength in his legs.
“The main reason I wanted to exercise was that I was becoming tired and resigning myself to the chair. I wanted to have more freedom,” says Gravelle. an Air Force Veteran.
His first attempt to get moving was to lift his legs on his own.
“And it was so painful. But I could do it,” he remembers. “It was only a fraction of an inch at first, but I felt inspired.”
His VA primary care physician gave him help and support and provided him with an elastic strap and instructions for doing leg stretches at home, sometimes with ankle weights. For the pain he experienced while exercising and trying to move, he used a nonnarcotic medication “that didn't make me feel too lethargic.” Exercise and meditation also helped the pain he experienced when moving.
His progress and his doctor’s support kept him motivated, as did his fiancée, Rachael, and her two children.
A Diffcult Road Ahead
Unfortunately, Gravelle started getting more muscle spasms in his legs and hips. That’s when doctors at Buffalo VA Medical Center told him he had degenerative spinal disease. “But instead of becoming frustrated, I decided not to let my condition bring me down any further and continue to exercise,” he says. He began seeing a physical therapist at Bath VA Medical Center and exercising even more. The therapists provided crutches and braces to help him stand.
By February 2012, Gravelle could stand on his own, only for a few seconds at first, then for longer and longer. Each time he fell, he got right up and tried again. Meanwhile, even with his physical therapy appointments, he continued his home exercises.
“Everyone was telling me not to push it. But I went against that a little bit and started increasing the resistance with my elastic strap and ankle weights, still within the advised limits. I didn’want to injure myself,” he says. “Any setbacks in my progress just fueled my desire to walk. I set goals and stuck to them. And my success kept me going.” Soon, he was standing for half an hour.
A Helpful Device
In March 2012, Gravelle took his first, wobbly steps. Things really improved on April Fools’ Day 2012 when he received computerized bilateral walk aids from VA. These are programmed to respond to a person’s muscular movements and send electrical impulses into nerves that otherwise wouldn’t fire, helping the person walk. Within 6 weeks, Gravelle could walk half a mile.
“These devices forever changed my outlook and my future,” he says.
Now Gravelle leaves his wheelchair behind when he runs errands or even goes out dancing with Rachael. And he won’t need it on his wedding day. “After 20 years, to be able to walk down the aisle is amazing,” Gravelle says. “I’ve been given a chance at a new life.” Gravelle still keeps up with his exercise because he knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll lose his mobility.
For Veterans in similar situations, Gravelle offers this advice: Never give up. “If there’s any stopping, it’s only in the minds and hearts of those who choose to stop,” he says. “If you want to go on, then you find a way to do it.”
Veterans Wellness Summer 2014 PDF
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