December 2012 will mark the thirteenth anniversary of the car accident in which I sustained a Spinal Cord Injury leaving me a C5/C6 quadriplegic in 1999. The past thirteen years have help many ups and downs, triumphs and victories; in all the time since my injury I have held on to the hope that I might walk again someday. Since discovering The Dream2Walk Foundation and Project Walk I believe that day is now closer than ever, but let me start from the beginning.
I returned from serving a tour in Bosnia in October of 1999. I was a specialist in the Army and I loved my job. My duties included serving as a squad leader, radio operator, infantry soldier and battalion operations officer’s driver. The Army was structured and disciplined and I was proud to serve my country. Back home I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, Re-Enlisting and training to be a Green Beret were two of my priorities. I was dating a pretty girl at the time and life was great. Then one day in December, three short months later, everything changed in the blink of an eye.
My girlfriend and I had picked up another friend and were headed to Waco to go dancing. It was a cold, rainy day but I had a day pass from the base and was going to enjoy my time out, I loved to dance. As we were driving, Kim lost control of the car. I don’t actually remember the car accident but I am told that the car flipped several times. Kim was fortunate to only have a scratch, our friend in the back seat broke her neck but did not sustain a spinal cord injury. On the other hand I broke my neck in three places and sustained a spinal cord injury. Next thing I remember, I woke up in a hospital in Waco, Texas surrounded by my very concerned family. Nothing would ever be the same. I had a very difficult time accepting my diagnosis as a quadriplegic. I had been a runner all my life, a competitive athlete and now was being told that I would never walk again. That just couldn’t be true.
The Army took good care of me and for that I am very grateful. I spent the next nine months in rehab at a V.A. Hospital in California which is where I am from originally. Nine months of learning how to feed myself, dress myself, push a manual wheelchair and bathe. I had gone from a 23 year old man advancing in the ranks of the Army, to a 23 year old man learning how to put on his own socks again. My family came to visit me and Kim, my girlfriend, even moved to California to support me. I never once blamed her for the accident, to this day she and I continue to be good friends.
When the time came to leave the rehab hospital I was basically on my own. My family felt like it would be best for me to learn how to make it by myself and manage my own care. This was very difficult for me. I was angry about my injury and unsure of what to do next. The first several years of my injury proved to be very trying for me. Many of the care givers I hired were not dependable, one of them even assaulted me and I struggled to make it on my own successfully. I asked God why many times, “Why Me?” Though I still do not know why, I do know that he sustained me and carried me through my darkest hours.
Life was not all hardship and sorrow, running had always helped me clear my mind before my injury and it had always brought me joy. I loved to push my body and being in a wheelchair wasn’t going to stop me from pushing myself and enjoying athletics. I began to hand cycle and race competitively. I competed in a Half Iron Man competition, it was amazing! 5K marathons and triathlons all became favorite sports. I have a wall full of medals at home but nothing is as satisfying as the actual race. Pushing my body with the wind in my face now that’s rewarding. Tackling life on my own as a quad was not easy but I eventually got the hang of it. I moved back to Texas and built a wonderful life for myself.
Life was good again, I had my friends, a nice house, racing in my hand cycle and plenty of goals that were in my reach. There were even a few opportunities for me to encourage other people by sharing my story at public speaking events. A good friend helped me to develop a website where I could share my story with others as well. Encouraging others to never give up is something I have done consistently since my injury. I have even been able to share my story on the local news. Things will get better, sometimes you just have to ride out the storm.
Two things were still missing for me though, walking, I still held on to the hope that I would walk again one day. I was not made to sit in a chair all the time, I was made to walk, to dance, to run and I continued to hope. The other thing that was missing, a wife! I married my beautiful wife, Bethany, in March 2012. Bethany was and is so supportive of me; she helps me to maintain my very best health. As we were considering travel options for this past summer (2012) to get away from the Texas heat, which can make maintaining good health very difficult, we came across a video on Facebook. We could hardly believe our eyes! My good friend Pamela is also a quad, but there was something different about Pamela, she is learning to walk again! Bethany and I were in tears as we watched a slideshow in which Pamela went from being in a wheelchair, to standing up, to taking steps with the assistance of a gate trainer. We called Pamela together right then and there and she told us all about Project Walk and The Dream2Walk Foundation. For the second time in my life everything changed.
Two short weeks later we drove out to Project Walk in Austin, Texas to watch Pamela walk in person, it was indescribable. We knew that Project Walk was exactly where we needed to be. Pamela also encouraged us to check out The Dream2Walk Foundation which had been such a huge help to her achieving her goal of walking again. At long last my hope was to become a goal, a goal I knew I could reach. Bethany and I were ecstatic to learn of Project Walk Dallas. Two weeks after watching Pamela walk with a gate trainer, we visited Project Walk Dallas and my journey to walking again officially began!
Since starting therapy at Project Walk Dallas this past July (2012), I have regained several muscle functions including upper and lower abdominal muscles, lower back control and some voluntary leg function. Every week we marvel and celebrate as my body recovers in ways that many doctors previously told me was not even possible. Each movement and strengthened muscle gets me one step closer to walking. The work outs are hard and I deeply appreciate the trainers pushing me beyond what even I thought was possible. For the first time since my injury I am truly, actively working towards getting out of my wheelchair. I have always loved to push my body and get it to perform. Project Walk is a challenge and every week I give it 110% of my effort. I tell everyone I meet about Project Walk and encourage them to check out The Dream2Walk Foundation (www.dream2walk.org) as well. Both of these amazing organizations offer the practical therapy and support I wish I would have had right after my injury or any time after my injury for that matter. I am so grateful to Project Walk and the difference it has already made in my life!
I am also very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of The Dream2Walk Foundation’s Family of Scholarship Recipients. Since I have been given the opportunity to be part of The Dream2Walk Foundation, I will not take it for granted. I plan to continue sharing my story and plan to even write a book someday soon. Sharing my story and my journey on the road to recovery (walking again), allows me to give others hope that they too can walk again someday. It also allows me to continue spreading the word about the great opportunity and support that Project Walk and The Dream2Walk Foundation have to offer. There is always a way to reach your goal, never give up, I believe I will walk again. Thank you for being a part of my journey!
– Jonathan Merchant
With your support and generosity we have been able to grant 10 hours of rehabilitation therapy to Jon at Project Walk Dallas!
As of December 10, 2012, Jonathan has opted out of working out at a rehab facility in favor of the “Train the Trainer Program” at Beyond the Chair in San Antonio. We were able to help Jon pay for part of his “Train the Trainer Program” in April of 2013. He still remains an active part of The Dream2Walk Family on a non financial assistance basis until further notice.
We wish Jon all the best training with his own trainer and look forward to seeing his progress, as well as having him actively participate in our fundraisers to help us to continue helping the rest of our/his fellow Dream2Walk Family of Scholarship recipients!