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Hope after paralysis – neuro-rehab helps Tony to rebuild his life

How specialist therapy is supporting his recovery and giving renewed hope for the future

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After sustaining a spinal cord injury in a motocross accident, Tony Makepeace was left facing the devastating reality that he would never walk again. 

The father of young twins, Tony was frustrated by the lack of progress he was making in his neuro-rehab in terms of regaining any form of independence. 

Having sustained his injury in February 2022, Tony was in hospital for eight months, being transferred to a specialist spinal unit mid-way through – but it was only after his discharge that the real gains came. 

After his partner researched neuro-rehab options to support Tony in rebuilding his life, they came across Neural Pathways, a specialist centre in Gateshead which has delivered life-changing outcomes for people after neurological injury and illness since 2003. 

“I thought when I left hospital that this was me done, I thought this was my life. I couldn’t transfer independently and I felt like I was totally reliant on other people,” says Tony. 

“Coming to Neural Pathways has genuinely changed my life. The progress I have made here in a few months has given me hope again for the future.”

 

The life-changing injury

A keen motocross rider, Tony would spend most weekends competing in events around the country, travelling far beyond his native North East to take part. 

On this particular weekend in February last year, he was at FatCat Motorparc in Doncaster, taking part in an event like he usually would. 

But part-way through the race, tragedy struck and a crash unfolded before Tony’s eyes which he was powerless to avoid. Even now, the detail is all too clear for Tony. 

“I remember seeing two riders crash in front of me as I was coming up to a jump. The bikes were lying on the ground, I could see them as I was landing from the jump, and obviously there was nothing I could do to avoid them,” recalls Tony, who was a parcel delivery driver. 

“So I crashed and it sent me over the handlebars. I remember just lying there, looking at this scene. There were probably 15 riders in the crash in total.”

Tony was taken to hospital, at which point “everything became a bit of a blur” through the pain-relieving medication he was given. After a series of operations over the following days, Tony was given the news he was dreading. 

“It is absolutely devastating to hear you’ll never walk again. Absolutely devastating,” he says. 

“All I could think of was my twins and the fact I wanted to do everything I could to get better for them. I wanted us to have the best life we could have after what had happened.

“We had such an active lifestyle. When I wasn’t at work or with the kids, I’d have been in the garage building bikes, and then on the bike every weekend. I was never sitting down. So in many ways, it was unbelievable what had happened and now none of that was possible.”

Having been in hospital for around three months, Tony was transferred to a spinal unit for specialist care and rehabilitation – but was left frustrated by the lack of progress he made. 

“I didn’t make any progress at all, and that’s really difficult,” says Tony. 

“You have good days and bad days when you’re in there, you try and cope as best you can, but when you’re not making any progress, that is very hard. I’m quite a positive person and want to get better, but when you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere – and you want that so much, especially for your kids – that’s a difficult place to be.

“I thought I was done when I left hospital. I didn’t feel the hospital physiotherapy had got me to where I wanted to be or had given me any hope I could get there, but I thought that was it.” 

 

The positive impact of specialist rehab

Having wanted to do everything possible to maximise Tony’s chances of making progress, his partner researched neuro-rehab options locally and even nationally and thankfully, the Neural Pathways centre was only minutes away from their home, so they made contact to see if they could help. 

“At that point, I’d say things changed massively. They listened to me and understood. For me, that was massive,” says Tony. 

“Their passion and dedication has been there from day one. I am making progress that a few months ago I didn’t think was possible. Genuinely, this has changed my life.”

On contacting Neural Pathways late in 2022, Tony began working with Deborah Bain, a physiotherapist who leads the company’s Northern team and has supported people to achieve life-changing outcomes with Neural Pathways for over ten years. 

“From the first assessment, we’ve been working on what I want to achieve, which initially was to transfer. We started work on that straight away, building the core work up and working on ways for me to achieve that,” he says. 

For Deborah, she instantly saw Tony’s potential and commitment to making progress. 

“I saw so much potential that hadn’t been looked at, and it was difficult because this hadn’t been worked on previously. I didn’t know why, because Tony’s motivation was obvious, I knew we could get progress from him and we would make gains,” she says.

“I saw very early on that he is someone who likes a challenge – and so do I. We worked well together from the beginning because we push each other as to what is possible. We bounce off each other and it’s really working well. 

“In hospital, he didn’t do any work on transferring – but within the second session, we were transferring him with a board. Initially it was with two people, but it’s just me and him now. There are some days he uses hardly any support. He has never liked using the hoist, which I understand completely, so for him it’s a massive thing that he doesn’t have to be hoisted at home.  

“Tony has been brilliant and has made such progress in just a few weeks really. We are working to make even more gains.”

In each of his three sessions a week, Tony works for an hour with a therapy assistant and then 90 minutes with Deborah, working on cardio, strength and transfer work. 

Tony also has access to high-tech equipment – as part of Neural Pathways’ commitment to delivering the best possible neuro-rehab, it makes use of a wide range of specialist equipment, and recently secured a trial of an ExoMotus M4. The exoskeleton is one of only two of the robots in Europe, and enables people who cannot walk to perform routine functions like standing, walking on level and walking on mildly sloped surfaces. 

“Using that was life-changing for me, because I hadn’t walked for a year at that point. Being able to stand again, to have that standing position where you can look directly at people, to feel your feet hitting the floor, was just amazing. The mental side of that for me was massive,” says Tony.

For Deborah, the fact that Tony is making such progress – the kind that seemed a world away after his discharge from hospital – shows that expectation-defying rehab is possible. 

“I would always say don’t write anybody off, and tap into the resources that you can tap into to help you get to where you want to be,” she says. 

“For some people, they aren’t ready when they’re in hospital – Tony was ready, but for others, they aren’t at that point, but it doesn’t mean they won’t get there later. 

“Sometimes when people get home and are settled they become more ready for rehab, it’s totally determined by the individual. But I would never say something isn’t possible – you can always work towards it and do as much as you can. 

“For Tony, he was very clear and precise on what he wanted to do and where he wants to go. And from thinking this wasn’t possible, just look at him now.”

Tony is delighted with his progress, and his goals revolve around him continuing to advance. 

“The goal is to be better than I was yesterday. See where I can go,” says Tony. 

“Long term, I think I’m probably like everyone who would say they want to walk, but as long as I can transfer and get myself up and get myself to bed, I am happy with that. 

“You never know what the future holds, but this injury happened and I have to deal with it. But since I came here (to Neural Pathways) things have been so much more positive. I have learned that there is progress I can make, there is so much more I can do than I initially thought possible.

“I’m so pleased I came here. I wanted to have the best shot of recovering as much as possible, everyone wants that and deserves that. If you have the resources to be able to make that happen, then you’re giving yourself the best chance.”

Deborah adds: “We both want to do the best, not necessarily to prove people wrong, but certainly to show that is possible.

“I will push Tony as far as I can, and he certainly pushes himself in every session, but it’s still too early to say what the outcome will be and where this will lead. A year down the line, who knows where he will be?

“Tony does have good days and bad days, I have seen that myself, but it is all part of the adjustment period. This wasn’t expected to happen to him, and it’s fine to feel like that.

“It’s part of a process and now I’m so pleased there are more good days than bad days. The motivation is strong and we’ll do absolutely everything we can to keep pushing forward.”

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