VISN 2: Veterans' Wellness, Summer 2014 - New York/New Jersey VA Health Care Network
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New York/New Jersey VA Health Care Network


VISN 2: Veterans' Wellness, Summer 2014

     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.

Veterans Wellness Magazine Summer 2014
Dennis Gravelle
Dennis Gravelle using crutches the day he received his computerized walk aids.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
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.

PTs Encourage Wheelchair Users to Get Moving
Do you think using a wheelchair means you can’t exercise? Two VA physical therapists say you still can.

“No matter what your condition is or why you need to use a wheelchair, there is probably something you can do to exercise,” says Arin Wood, D.P.T., B.S., Rehabilitation and Audiology Manager at Bath VA Medical Center. Even getting a small amount of exercise is important because “motion is lotion,” he says.

“Exercise keeps the fluid in the joints flowing, reducing stiffness,” says Dr. Wood. It also strengthens your muscles, heart and lungs. And it increases your energy and mental alertness, and decreases chronic pain. “When we move and we feel good, we have less pain,” Dr. Wood notes.

Do you lack energy? “You may not feel like exercising if you’re taking medication that makes you drowsy,” says James McMahon, M.P.T., A.T., C., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinical Coordinator at Canandaigua VA Medical Center. “So check with your doctor about alternatives.”

Here are a few more tips to help get you started: • Lock your wheels on a level surface before you begin exercising, advises McMahon.

Here are a few more tips to help get you started:

Lock your wheels on a level surface before you begin exercising, advises McMahon.

Chair-based exercise can incorporate body weight movement, free weights or exercise bands to build strength. The movements will increase range of motion and get your heart rate up.

Consider tai chi and yoga. They both can be practiced while seated.

“If you feel pain that concerns you, stop exercising and seek guidance,” says McMahon. “Pain that prevents you from the doing full range of motion of the exercise is too much pain.”

“Make exercise a part of your daily routine, at the same time every day if possible,” Dr. Wood says. “Carve some time out of your day and make the commitment.”
Starting to Move
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.

quotes - Any setbacks in my progress only fueled my desire to walk. I set goals and stuck to them. And my success kept me going. – Dennis Gravelle
Getting Around Without a Wheelchair
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.”

For Veterans using wheelchairs, try these exercises
wheelchair exercises   wheelchair exercises   wheelchair exercises   wheelchair exercises
One arm straight at side of chair, make fist, thumb up. Slowly raise right arm up to shoulder height. Hold for 2-3 seconds and then lower slowly. Repeat with left arm. Gradually raise higher if possible without pain and discomfort.
Tighten abdominal muscles and, sitting upright, grasp under one thigh and pull knee to chest. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Then repeat with other leg.
Extend your leg, lift it and hold it still. Point your toes up and then extend your toes away. Repeat 10 times with each leg.
Feet on floor and hands on armrest, extend arms to lift buttocks from chair. Hold for 2-3 seconds.

Veterans Wellness Home
Summer 2014

Veterans Wellness Summer 2014 PDF
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