A year ago, Nick Malafronte was working as a lifeguard at Island Grove Park in his hometown of Abington. The oldest of three boys in his family, he was enjoying an active summer after completing his first year at Westfield State University.
Today, the 20-year-old is in a wheelchair and spends his days with physical therapists following a freak accident last July at Island Grove, a popular recreation park with a man-made pond.
While throwing a ball around on the dock at the swimming hole with a friend, Malafronte landed where the water was only about 4 feet deep, breaking two vertebrae as he hit bottom. Paralyzed from the chest down, he was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors determined he would never walk again and would have limited use of his arms.
It’s a sad story — and not an uncommon one, said Dan Cummings, whose own experience with spinal cord injury led him to found Journey Forward, a rehabilitation facility in Canton where Malafronte is a client.
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Birmingham, Ala., about 12,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries in the United States each year. Cummings was paralyzed from the chest down when he dove into shallow water off a boat, also when he was 19. The two men’s similar paths have converged, and Malafronte said he now looks to Cummings, 31, as his inspiration.
“When I met Dan and heard his story, I saw what’s possible,” he said recently while working out on the Lokomat, a computerized machine that uses robotic technology to walk paralyzed individuals with a harness and pulley system. The computer collects data and lets the trainer know if the user’s muscles are doing any of the work.
Malafronte met Cummings at a Boston Bruins game through Matt Brown, a young man from Norwood who was paralyzed in a high school hockey game.
“Dan told me it doesn’t happen overnight, and to never give up,” Malafronte said. “He said it would be a game of inches, and to keep fighting. He told me it’s all about the three D’s — determination, desire, and dedication. I always carry that with me.”
With three friends looking on during his workout, Malafronte explained the sensation of standing upright and walking after being in the wheelchair for nearly a year.
“The first time I used the Lokomat, I was pumped. It was really cool,” he said. “It feels kind of normal. I can feel the weight in my legs.” He said he knows it is working his legs and he is making progress because he can feel tingling and a “kind of buzzing.”
Journey Forward therapists Danielle Buckley and John Walters, who is also the program director, also have Malafronte sitting up on his own while working his arms and shoulders. Malafronte said the two-hour workouts twice a week “kick my butt, but I love it — it’s awesome.”
The improvements he has made at Journey Forward in the past couple months are incredible, said his father, Vic. “I have seen so much more movement in Nick’s arms and strength in his upper body. What he can do with his arms now is fantastic.”
Nick Malafronte said his doctors are amused by his determination and will to walk. “They think it’s funny, and they just tell me to keep working hard.”
Doctors also told Cummings he would never walk again after his accident, and would be lucky to even feed himself. But Cummings, who uses a walker to amble around today, refused to accept the diagnosis.
“I was 19 and had my whole life ahead of me,” he said recently. “I thought to myself that these doctors don’t know me. They don’t know what I’m capable of.”
Cummings, who lives in Hyde Park, said he set goals for himself. “I took it one day at a time,” he said. “I honestly believed I would walk again, and I gave it everything I had. I said I was going to walk by the time I was 21.”
After an extended stay at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the country’s top rehabilitation facilities, Cummings went home and began regular rehab workouts. He said he grew frustrated and bored, and realized he would turn 21 without reaching his goal of walking again. He learned to dress himself, tie his own shoes, be independent at home, and even drive.
Then he went looking for a program that would make him work harder, and eventually found an independent rehab center in San Diego called Project Walk, where he says rehabilitation focuses on repetition of exercise and rethinking throughout the nervous system.
“I knew it’s where I needed to be,” Cummings said.
After four years at Project Walk, he walked out with a walker and a new goal — to open a similar facility in Massachusetts.
“What I learned at Project Walk and have proven through my own success is that exercise is absolutely essential to any level of recovery for any injury,” he said. “It doesn’t reverse the injury — it just makes it possible to get better.”
With a $350,000 contribution from a private donor, Cummings obtained nonprofit status and opened Journey Forward with a staff of two and 11 clients. Today the facility houses 40 workout machines and employs 16 people for 58 clients. Fifteen people are on the waiting list, and Cummings said he has plans to expand gradually.
Recently Malafronte, accompanied by his mother, Diane, returned to the Shepherd Center for an intense, three-week-long outpatient regimen. He had spent three months there as an in-patient a week after his injury.
“The therapists there could tell a difference in Nick’s movement and strength since last summer,” said Vic Malafronte. While at the center, Nick works a 9-to-5 day, five days a week. Because of cost and scheduling, he can only do a few hours a week at Journey Forward, his father said, but the workout is so focused he gets much more out of Journey Forward and the Shepherd Center than going to a regular rehab center.
The Shepherd Center is covered by insurance, while facilities like Journey Forward and Project Walk are not. Cummings says he is working to change that.
Vic Malafronte said the great thing about the Shepherd Center and Journey Forward is that they work toward goals that help the patient in everyday life.
“They have a ‘Let’s get it done — let’s get out of the chair’ attitude,” he said.
The Shepherd Center teaches patients how to function in the real world by helping them learn tasks “of daily living,” said Jill Kellner, an occupational therapist at the facility who has worked with Malafronte. “These are simple tasks like using a cellphone, feeding themselves, operating their own wheelchairs, and getting around on public transportation. We take them out so they can practice in the real world.”
This has helped Malafronte maintain somewhat of a normal social life with his brothers and friends, said his father. “The friends have just been great. They are always at the house hanging out; they take Nick out with them, and take care of him like it’s no big deal. I’m so grateful for them, and so proud of them and our two other boys for how they look after Nick.”
Nick’s attitude makes it easy to be around him, those who know him say. Vic Malafronte said his son was thrilled to learn recently that, with the progress he has made at Journey Forward, he could soon drive again, using a specially adapted vehicle.
“The therapists told him if he continues to strengthen his arms and upper body and sit in his wheelchair without a chest strap and seat belt, he’ll be able to drive and to use a nonmotorized wheelchair when he wants to. He just needs to build his core muscles a little more,” he said.
During his recent visit to the Shepherd Center, Nick fulfilled two goals — he went back in the pool for the first time since his accident, and he went sky diving, an activity he and his friends had been planning before his accident.
“I was nervous about it,” said Diane Malafronte. “But he’s 20 — I have to let him make his own decisions.” Strapped on to an expert sky diver and landing so that he was in the sky diver’s lap, Nick described the experience as “awesome.”
Last week, he returned to the scene of his accident for the first time, his brother said, another big step in his life journey.
Cummings, who continues to work on his own strength, said he sees himself in the young Malafronte.
“We had similar injuries at the same age in a similar way,” he said. “He has the right attitude; he’s a hard worker, and he firmly believes in himself. He knows he can accomplish anything. That’s just how I was.”
Malafronte said he still gets discouraged, but he’s learning every day to accept what his mentor told him — measure the small advances as major accomplishments, and never give up.
“It’s frustrating how slow the progress is. And it’s hard seeing my friends do stuff that I can’t do. But I have to accept that life is different, and I keep the ultimate goal in mind. I will walk again.”