By Zach Marr
Mark Ashcraft is one of those people you can’t help falling in love with. He has a caring soul and an infectious, outgoing personality. Anyone who meets him is immediately drawn in. He is a fighter with an enormous heart. That is the reason he fights daily to walk again. I have watched the progression of emotional states Mark has been through during his recovery, from the “Why Me?” stage to the “This isn’t going to beat me!” stage. It is inspiring to watch his determination in action. He passed through the initial stages of grief quickly. His goal from the beginning has been to defeat paralysis and walk again.
Nothing can prepare you for watching someone you love become paralyzed and witnessing them struggle to live the life they once lived. You see them unable to walk, run, or take care of themselves. You see them unable to live in their own home. It is difficult to watch the agony they live through on a daily basis, as they struggle to perform the simple tasks they are so used to doing. It is crushing to watch spirits fade and fear settle in for the injured, and for every person involved in their life. Loved ones attempt to pick up the pieces and try to appear calm, even though on the inside, every fiber of their being fears what the future holds as well.
Mark was born with Scheuermann’s disease, and has suffered from its complications his entire life. His is a condition where the spine curves and the discs and vertebrae fuse together. As Mark aged, his condition got worse. The deterioration caused pain on a daily basis. Numerous tests, scans, and consultations determined that surgery was the only option. So, in January 2017, Mark went in for a procedure. The surgical process involved breaking most of his spine and removing the T9 vertebra. Two rods and more than 30 screws were inserted into his spine for re-alignment. Surgery went well and Mark was at home recovering for a couple of months. He was walking with a cane and on track for a successful recovery. In March, things turned in the blink of an eye. He fell one day, and he began experiencing excruciating pain that shot up his spine. His surgeon recommended an immediate trip to the hospital. It was determined that Mark’s upper spine was trying to curve back into the state it was in before his surgery. Since his lower spine was straight with rods and screws, this meant that Mark’s upper spine was applying pressure and pulling on his spinal cord and nerves.
In March of 2017, he underwent a second emergency surgery. Doctors placed two rods and screws in his upper spine to correct the curve that was re-forming. The procedure appeared to have wen t well, but nothing prepared us for what happened next. Mark woke up paralyzed. Doctors called it a “non-traumatic spinal cord injury”. My first thought was, “Non-traumatic for whom!?”
Other than the loss of my mother, watching Mark experience this kind of trauma, and not knowing if he would will ever walk again, is the most painfully emotional experience I’ve ever had to face. I tried to remain in good spirits and stay positive during my hospital visits and phone calls. But, on the inside I was in pain too. I became the cheerleader on days he wanted to give up, the therapist on days he needed guidance, and the coach on the days he needed a pep talk. Luckily, pep talks weren’t needed very much. I have a fighter on my hands. I have never known anyone with such a fighting spirit.
After several weeks in the hospital with no significant changes, we were let loose into the wonderful world of rehabilitation. Here, Mark learned how to live with his disability. He learned ways to shower, get dressed, and use a catheter. He learned exercises to strengthen his upper body to assist with transfers. Physical therapy sessions using hoists to get him standing, and exercises that helped him bear weight became his daily grind. By the time Mark’s insurance was capped and his therapy benefits were exhausted, he was on his way to making great progress. In fact, his last week in rehab he stood on his own for a few moments by holding onto the wall. But, in spite of his progress, I was worried about how Mark would continue his recovery with home rehabilitation, and I was concerned he wouldn’t receive the expertise he needed to learn to walk again. Mark was concerned as well. And within a few weeks of being home, I could tell he was becoming down and depressed.
Then, one afternoon last May, I received a phone call from an enthusiastic Mark. “You HAVE to go to this website right now, and look at this place called NeuroHope here in Indy!”, he exclaimed. I hadn’t heard him that excited in a long time. He told me about NeuroHope’s inspiring story. A spinal cord injury survivor named Chris Leeuw and a Doctor of Physical Therapy named Nora Foster opened a clinic for neurologic injury for individuals that needed more therapy after their injuries. They started the clinic from scratch and were helping people just like Mark. That day, Mark called NeuroHope, left a message and prayed he would hear back and be able to become a patient at this amazing place. A couple days later we were driving and his phone rang. It was NeuroHope returning his call. Mark began talking to the person on the line and I listened to his side of the conversation as he relayed his story. After awhile, he asked the name of the person he was talking to, and he was as told it was Chris, NeuroHope’s Founder.
I actually had to pull the car over so he could gather himself. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was like he was talking to a celebrity. Mark was so excited to talk to the person who’s own recovery had inspired him to never give up. Someone, like Mark, who knew what it felt like, and had chosen to help others in similar situations. We went the following week for a consultation, and we met Chris, Nora, and the incredible family of staff at NeuroHope. It was quickly clear that Mark had found a home.
The last two months have been inspiring for all of us. His therapists work him hard, and try new things to push his body and recovery. His recovery is slow, but he sees improvement every day. I’ve watched him improve transfers, begin to stand, and even TAKE HIS FIRST STEPS!
NeuroHope has been a perfect match for Mark to continue his journey, and he will never give up!