It’s Wednesday afternoon at the Madison Area YMCA. On schedule, right before noon, Dave Carver whizzes through the Family Center’s lobby in his motorized wheelchair wearing a Madison softball cap and headphones that connect him to his cellphone. He greets staff members at the Welcome Center with a big smile, deftly navigates the walkway between the wall and the staircase railing and continues to the Fitness Center. Susan Sheeley, a personal trainer at the Madison Area YMCA, begins Dave’s exercise regimen for his upper body at the lateral machine. Planting her foot on the wheel of the wheelchair for stability and taking Dave’s arm in her hand, she stretches it above his head and back as far as it can go. She massages his shoulder with her other hand. It takes every bit of strength for the diminutive Susan to move his arm.

Dave has spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal cord, a diagnosis he received almost three years ago after he collapsed and hit his head leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. The arm that Susan stretches used to be locked to the side of his body.  

“I sweat when I work with him,” says Susan, who also works with stroke victims. 

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“She’s the only one who works here,” quips a smiling Dave, who explains that his muscles freeze. “They don’t relax anymore. My brain and my muscles have lost connectivity.”

It’s the beginning of a physically and mentally strenuous session that Dave comes to three days a week at the Madison Area YMCA. He stretches and strengthens his upper body with Susan and works his lower body to re-learn how to walk with physical therapist Matthew Riordan of Professional Physical Therapy & Training, LLC, located within the Madison Area and Summit Area YMCAs.

Susan individually pushes back Dave’s fingers on his left hand. His usual smile turns into a line as he focuses intently. Susan adjusts the circuit machine to a 20 lb. setting, raises the tube to Dave’s lips for hydration from his water container, unwraps a stick of chewing gum for him to combat dry-mouth and lets him pull. After a couple of reps, the weight snaps back and lands with a thud. “Oops,” says Dave with a grin. “I pay extra for all the stuff that I break,” he jokes. It’s a welcome respite though. Fellow exercisers stop to say hello, offer a fist bump and remark on Dave’s undeniable progress. A woman updates him on a former player that he coached during his 24 years as a Madison Girls Softball coach.   

After another 40 minutes of upper body work, Matthew arrives in the Fitness Center to turn the focus to the lower body for the next hour. Dave presses a button and fully reclines in his wheelchair to stretch his lower back before standing, otherwise it would spasm. Dave explains that while the left side of his body is strong, he has no feeling. “If my left leg were to get caught under a chair, I wouldn’t feel it,” he says. His right side is weaker but extremely sensitive. “Rubbing a washcloth on my right side feels like bullets.”

After spending time at a rehabilitation center after his accident and diagnosis, Dave needed a place to continue his path to wellness. “I came to the Madison Area YMCA for strengthening and then I started seeing Matthew for physical therapy.”

Ever positive and upbeat, Dave says that he was lucky that he fell where and when he did three years ago at a concert in Brooklyn. EMTs were on the scene. He was in an intensive care unit by midnight and had surgery for spinal stenosis two days later. “They were able to fix things so that conditions couldn’t worsen. Otherwise, it would have been 15 years of hands and toes tingling, just wasting away. Doctors wouldn’t have been able to operate,” he says.

It’s time for climbing up and down the stairs. Matthew lifts Dave from his wheelchair in a bear-hug. “Get on those toes, chest up,” instructs Matthew. “Dave loves when I hug him,” he jokes. “Ok, now legs straight, heels down.”

With arm braces connected to sleek black crutches, Dave takes a few moments to correct his balance. He takes 15 small steps to Matthew’s six to the edge of the staircase. “The first step down is the hardest,” says Dave looking down the 6 stairs. “The problem is I don’t feel my feet very well,” he says as he extends his right arm forward and down. “Right arm,” Dave says, deeply concentrating, as he lands his right crutch on the stair. “Right leg,” he breathes as he lands his right leg. He does the same sequence with his left arm and leg. The first stair is conquered. He painstakingly continues down the stairs while kids from “Cooking & Crayons” race up the stairs to help their teacher put homemade treats in the oven.

Returning to the Fitness Center to walk on the treadmill, Dave has lots to remember to keep his form. He positions himself and his crutches on the belt of the treadmill. Matthew puts a strap around Dave’s waist. Standing close, he holds the strap to help Dave remain stable. Putting one foot in front of the other, keeping his hips stable and in line with the crutches, Dave walks. He walks 2 minutes and 20 seconds--.02 miles. He’s burned 5 calories.

“This is something I was told that I would never do,” says Dave. “They told me that I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life and that I would never walk. I said, ‘Not me.’”

After a brief rest, Dave continues to walk. He trips after a few seconds. “My left foot got caught under my right. I was focusing too much on my hips,” he says with a half-smile and a roll of his eyes. “I am 3,2,1, done,” says Dave after another minute and 44 seconds. Matthew hits the stop button.

“Everything is hard but it makes me appreciate everything I’ve accomplished,” says Dave as he settles back into his wheelchair.

He’ll be back again at the Madison Area YMCA on Friday.