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Fit for Life

Shepherd Center patients learn fitness and nutrition strategies to improve their lifelong wellness.

Mike Moberg wanted to lose weight to make it easier to get in and out of his wheelchair. Austin Vestal needed to gain 50 pounds as he pursued a return to distance running. And Treva Turner turned to customized exercise to improve her strength so she could continue
to work.

Exercise and diet figure prominently into the treatment plans for every Shepherd Center patient like Mike, who sustained a spinal cord injury, Austin, a brain injury, and Treva, who has MS.

“Every inpatient is assigned an interdisciplinary team to tackle health and wellness issues,” says physical therapist Sarah Morrison, vice president of clinical services. “We like to start as soon as possible, and it is not uncommon for our inpatients to attend classes on nutrition and fitness so they have a wellness regimen to follow when they return home.”

Shepherd Center patients’ goals can vary significantly, says clinical nutritionist Kristy Prox. “Patients who have paraplegia or tetraplegia are going to lose a lot of muscle strength and have decreased energy needs, whereas some of our patients with a brain injury are trying to heal their bodies so their energy needs may be twice as much as a person without an injury. Patients with multiple sclerosis often struggle with fatigue, so we work with them on trying to have smaller meals or snacks more often through the day and convenient healthy foods like pre-cut vegetables.”

The stories of three patients with very different needs show what proper exercise and nutrition can mean for an active lifestyle.

Dramatic Weight Loss

Mike Moberg, 31, of Nashville, Tenn., figures he was at his highest weight ever when he sustained a T-10 to -11 spinal cord injury in an auto accident in January 2009. He carried about 310 pounds on his 6-foot, 1-inch frame.

The ordeal of the injury and surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center took off about 10 pounds, but he knew early in his three-month stay at Shepherd Center that he would need to do more.

“As soon as I went from a power wheelchair to a manual chair, I really realized that the less I weigh, the easier it is for me to transfer in and out,” Mike says.

His therapists had him push the chair through the Shepherd parking garage. Back home in Nashville, he found another garage to repeat the training.

“I kept a log on my phone, how many times I went around,” he says. “The pounds started to come off. I also improved my diet.”

He stepped up his efforts dramatically in summer 2012 when Shepherd awarded him a scholarship for an intensive 12-week program in Beyond Therapy®.

“It was really like a boot camp — a mixture of exercise and therapy and using all the equipment, three hours a day and three times a week,” Mike explains. “It made a huge difference.”

“Huge” is not an understatement. Mike reduced from 310 pounds to a range of 155 to 160.

“To lose half your body weight is a big change,” he says. “Being in the chair is definitely a motivator. Every time I do a transfer that I feel like is a little too hard, that’s motivation.”

He continues to work out regularly, trying to fit in three sessions each week around his college classes.

Mike also has jumped into adaptive sports, joining an Achilles International chapter in Nashville. The runners’ group sponsors weekly training sessions open to people of all abilities and even provided a handcycle for Mike.

“I tend to enjoy that more than the gym because I can be outside,” he says. Meanwhile, he has set his sights on wheelchair racing. After participating in 5K races in his “everyday chair,” he received a grant this past spring from a California foundation to get a racing wheelchair. Mike then set his sights on participating in the Wheelchair Division of the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. Later goals include downhill skiing on a chair fitted onto a single ski.

“They told me early on at Shepherd to get involved in a sport, but the first couple of years, I wasn’t really open to it. Now, I’m really happy,” Mike says.

Return to Running

Austin Vestal, 25, of Jacksonville, Fla., was in a coma for 15 days after he sustained injuries to his brain and leg in a car crash on June 2, 2012. His mother, Sandy Vestal, says nurses at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center noticed Austin’s left leg and right arm — the only limbs with mobility — thrashing every day around 5:30 p.m.

“The nurses asked, ‘What does he do at this time of day?’” Sandy recalls. She knew the answer. Austin’s mind was taking his daily three-mile run.

Austin started running when he was about 19. From the time he regained consciousness after his injury, Austin was determined to run again.

But first he had to regain the weight and strength he lost during his coma. When he arrived at Shepherd Center in early August 2012, “They told me I had to gain 50 pounds,” Austin recalls. “I was skin and bones. I’m about 205 pounds, 6-foot-2 and I had dropped to 155.”

In addition to getting lots of protein, Austin worked with Shepherd therapists on exercise, which is challenging for a brain that has “forgotten” how to move some muscles.

“It was pretty bad,” Austin says. “My left arm was so immobile. It just didn’t want to move.”

Austin worked with occupational, physical and speech therapists. About two weeks into his Shepherd stay, he took his first steps, wearing a T-shirt from the Gate River Run, a 15K race he ran in Jacksonville in March 2012.

“I told the therapist, ‘I’m running the River Run next year,’” Austin recalls.

By the time he and his mother moved into a Shepherd Center apartment during Austin’s participation in the Shepherd Pathways day program, Austin was insisting on short runs on the lawn.

When he returned to Jacksonville, he heeded the advice to try adaptive sports. He joined a rowing team, and his family took him on bowling and pool outings on Friday nights.

By December 2012, he was running. His mother accompanied him at first. “We would go maybe a block, then another block,” she recalls. “Then he got better, and I had to ride my bicycle. Then he got better, and I had to get my car.”

In March 2013, as promised, Austin ran the Gate River Run — accompanied by his mother and sister, their boyfriends and two step-siblings.

After the family moves south to Boca Raton, Fla., this summer, Austin plans to return to work as a sales account manager, easing in part-time at first to build a daily routine.

Running helps him focus on living well. “When you finish, you’re like, ‘I got it!’ It’s a big confidence booster.”

Steps to Wellness

Treva Turner, 43, of Atlanta was, at first, frightened by her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2003, but Ben Thrower, M.D., medical director of the Andrew C. Carlos MS Institute at Shepherd Center, immediately put her at ease, she says. And she found she could continue to work full-time in sales while managing her MS, including medication and regular doctor visits.

“Then as my MS progressed over the years, I noticed little things I wasn’t able to do as well as I used to,” Treva says. “I was at the point where I could only walk short distances before I got really tired.”

She turned to exercise and was one of the first patients to join Shepherd’s MS Wellness Center when it opened in Summer 2012. The program fills a need for patients who’ve completed medical therapy up to their health insurance limits, says Chris Manella, the center’s therapy manager.

“We wanted to have a way to continue wellness with expert guidance for MS patients,” Manella says. The solution was an enhanced membership to Shepherd’s ProMotion wellness center. For $45 per month (the Georgia chapter of the National MS Society offers some scholarships), patients get access to the pool, ProMotion gym, six exercise classes and two education classes per week.

The classes reflect the special needs of MS patients with appropriate pacing and even cooling vests to prevent overheating. Education topics range from tips on staying mentally active to the latest research on MS. The center tested a group of patients when it opened. Rather than gradually losing ground to MS, 90 percent of the patients have shown actual improvement in metabolic rates and strength, Manella says.

Treva started using the center to work on core strength with Shepherd Center exercise specialist Blake Burdett, who has helped her tremendously.“He knows your limits,” Treva says. “But he doesn’t allow you to use your MS as an excuse to not exercise. It strengthened me in my endurance and leg muscles, so now I am able to do more for longer periods of time without having to rest,” she says.

Treva started a new job as a program coordinator at a local hospital recently. She continues to use the wellness center as often as possible.

“Shepherd Center not only treats my MS, but it also has other resources like the MS Wellness Center for my body and mind,” she says. “That is amazing, and it makes for a quality of life that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”


Written by David Simpson
Photography by Donn Jones, Kelly Jordan and Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.