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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Patient Steps Up as Spokesman for ODU Physical Therapy

By Irvin B. Harrell

Imagine yourself barely 19 years old, without a care in the world. You're free-climbing with friends at a familiar park in the West Virginia mountains. A consummate adrenaline junkie, you leap from rock to rock like you've done countless times - without protective gear.

Then in one fell swoop, mortality intervenes. You slip and find yourself hurtling toward the ground, which is about 10 stories below.

Welcome to Matthew Ewell's world.

"I landed, dying almost instantly from impact, and crushed my C7 vertebrae, causing paralysis," he told a crowd recently at an Old Dominion University gathering. "I had to be resuscitated twice, flatlining for roughly seven minutes."

Ewell was initially diagnosed with an unrecoverable incomplete spinal cord injury. He was paralyzed from the chest down. His plans for a career in the military would vanish, and his life would change forever.

In the past year, Ewell has become a spokesperson of sorts for ODU Monarch Physical Therapy Clinic. Handsome and well-spoken - sporting a youthful smile - he credits his testimonials to his gratitude for the help and encouragement he has received at the clinic during his rehabilitation.

His message is arresting from its opening:

"I would like to thank the University for giving me the honor to speak today on behalf of the College of Health Sciences and ODU Monarch Physical Therapy Clinic. My name is Matthew Ewell. On Sept. 18, 2016, I lost my life."

Ewell delivers his message while wearing the REX, a high-tech pair of bionic legs that can allow the wearer to experience normal movement patterns, even when a person's muscles can't activate themselves. It is the first commercial, powered exoskeleton that can move individuals with complete spinal cord paralysis.

"If nothing else, the device humanizes the individual using it," he said.

Ewell then took the audience on his journey to recovery and left them awestruck as he closed his presentation by stepping out of the REX and walking without assistance. The crowd responded with a standing ovation.

Walking wasn't something that Ewell ever expected to do according to early prognoses. During a week of hospitalization after the accident, he started experiencing movement in his arms, but the pain in his forearms was intense. By the seventh day, he was able to move his right leg.

Despite these physical milestones, Ewell received news that temporarily tempered his optimism after he was transferred to VCU Medical Center Inpatient Rehabilitation. Mobility tests revealed that there was a 30 percent chance of any mobility on the left side of his body, he said.

"There would be no walking. There would be no running," he said. "There would be a wheelchair. At first, I was crushed. I started losing hope. It tore me to pieces."

But his desire to thrive kicked in, and with it his defiance of his disability.

Ewell went from motorized wheelchair to a regular one, although the pain in his arms persisted. ("It was like a Charley horse that wouldn't go away.") He managed simple movements when possible as he became more acquainted with the wheelchair. But he remained resistant to the thought of relying permanently on the device.

"Having been active all my life - in the Boy Scouts, playing football, baseball, volleyball - my injury was hard to swallow," he said. "It's like being trapped inside a body that doesn't work the way it used to."

Not only had Ewell's physical life crumbled, but with it his social and emotional life as well.

"My girlfriend and I split up. My relationship with my mom and dad fell apart," he said. "I had hit rock bottom."

But Ewell fought on, telling himself, "I can't accept this."

It would take baby steps - literally. Ewell focused on standing. He pushed his therapist to push him. He tried to use muscles that had become dormant. He started standing more, using a walker, and standing in the shower. Before long he was able to do things so many of us take for granted.

"I was able to pee on my own," he said, noting that he and his therapist were brought to tears by the accomplishment.

Soon he was walking with a cane, and in November 2017 he came to Norfolk, where he received physical therapy at Bon Secours. Still things weren't stable on the financial side, so Ewell found himself couch surfing in Virginia Beach. Two friends in the area, Heather Andrew and Jeremy Douglas, reached out to help him.

"They are the closest to family that I have," he said. "They helped me realize my potential and better control my situation. They helped me get back on my feet."

Ewell continued treatment at Bon Secours for about seven months until landing a job at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters and working on mobility issues at Southeastern Physical Therapy.

From there, Ewell came to ODU Monarch Physical Therapy to continue his progress. That was where he befriended Dr. Lisa Koperna, the director of the clinic. He refers to her as a therapist and maternal figure, someone who has pushed him and possesses that "never say never" attitude.

"When I met Lisa, I had less muscle control and couldn't properly exercise to build muscle symmetry," Ewell said. "I had bad pelvic issues and way worse balance impairments than now. Lisa helped realign my body so I knew how to walk functionally for the first time."

Ewell is a believer when it comes to ODU Monarch Physical Therapy and the College of Health Sciences, which he said "strives to make such miraculous and almost impossible recoveries (such as his) something within the grasp of every patient that comes through its doors."

And he goes further.

"I plan to use my experience as inspiration to future patients," he said. "My goal now is to design updated versions of the REX for more regular and optimized performance."

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