Like most 18-year-olds, James Laubham of Ahwatukee Foothills craves independence. But unlike other young men, Laubham has to work harder to get it.
"My ultimate goal is to walk again," said Laubham, whose spinal cord was crushed a year ago when he was thrown from his family’s convertible in a crash that killed his stepmother. "But my short-term goals are just being independent and being able to play a sport again."
To get there, Laubham works out five days a week, 2 1 /2 hours a day at Neuro Institute in Tempe. The 6,500-square-foot rehabilitation and fitness facility, which opened in March, has more than $100,000 in exercise equipment that has been modified to be wheelchair accessible. The gym caters to clients who have suffered traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders.
"Our clients who come here are people who refuse to live with the limits their bodies have imposed on them," said Arnie Fonseca, an exercise physiologist. Fonseca founded Neuro Institute after his stepson, Brandon Gray, suffered a head injury in a car crash two years ago.
"Neurologically challenged people have different levels of function," Fonseca said. "I want to help people maximize their function, whether it’s helping them get from an electric wheelchair to a manual one, or just being able to transfer themselves out of their wheelchair.
"I want to work with the people who have been told, ‘We’ve done everything we can for you.’ I’ve been on the other side of that table with my son, and I know there is always more that can be done."
Walking into Neuro Institute is like walking into any other gym. There is a bank of exercise bikes, a climbing wall, basketball court, free weights and exercise balls. There are personal trainers who design programs based on the goals of the client.
But there is also a neuro gait trainer, which uses a harness to help someone who is in a wheelchair stand and "walk."
"I use the gait trainer because it will help retrain my muscles if the time ever comes when I can walk," said 38-year-old Larry Watson of Mesa, who has been in a wheelchair since a car accident 20 years ago.
"With some of the advances that have been made in research, there may be things that I can take advantage of in the future, and I want to make sure my body is in condition to take advantage of those things if they happen."
While he has seen clients make enormous strides, he doesn’t expect miracles.
"We don’t make any promises except that they’re going to get physically stronger and feel better," Fonseca said. "Our clients may be disabled but they don’t train any differently than the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals get the best equipment. They get the best people pushing them. And that’s the exact same mentality we have at the Neuro Institute."
And just like a professional athlete, Fonseca said clients push themselves daily to get better.
"Most people quit exercise programs because they get boring," he said. "We don’t allow any plateaus. We’re going to figure out a way to bust through that plateau and keep them going."
It’s that competitive atmosphere that keeps Laubham motivated.
"Before I started working out, I couldn’t transfer myself in and out of my wheelchair," he said after lifting himself out of his wheelchair and pounding out a set of pushups. "It’s made me a lot stronger and my endurance is better. I used to play football and run track and I’d like to be able to compete again, whether it’s wheelchair rugby or something else."
Mesa Community College student Melissa Cordell isn’t motivated by competition. She is motivated to regain as much normalcy as possible after cerebral palsy left her in a wheelchair three years ago.
"I’d just like to be able to walk to my bathroom without falling on my butt," the 23-year-old Chandler woman said. "Before I started working out, I felt very frustrated and gave up. When surgeries didn’t help, I got depressed."
Cordell now works out for three hours, three days a week for a total of nine. She rides a stationary bike, does sit-ups and strength training. In the last three weeks, Cordell has gone from being able to walk 15 feet on her own to being able to walk 30 feet.
"Someday, I hope I won’t need the wheelchair," she said, smiling.