Erica Davis hangs above the treadmill. Though her feet are grounded on the belt, she has a feeling of suspension that's combated only by the parallel bars she can use to support her arms.
Her legs are at the mercy of the trainers who sit on either side, controlling each movement as they simulate the walking motion on the treadmill. To make sure the movements are properly mimicked, the trainer to Erica's left refers to a computer screen that tells him if the steps are being taken at the appropriate time.
This is the closest Erica has come to walking since New Year's Eve 2005. And it's her best hope of walking again.
Doctors have told Erica that she probably won't. She disagrees.
"I don't think about not walking again because I know that I will," she said.
That's why Erica and her mother, Carol, left their home in Lodi for a senior citizen mobile home park in the San Diego area.
Why mom and daughter work odd jobs at Awakenings Health Institute, the rare and innovative clinic where Erica trains.
Why every cent they make goes toward Erica's rehab.
This wasn't what Erica had in mind. She was a triathlete in training working toward the granddaddy of all triathlons - the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. The ironwoman's legs have now betrayed her, but an iron will remains. And in order to walk again, she will need it.
A future altered
Erica has always been a good athlete. From her shortstop-playing days in competitive youth softball to her time at Pacific Union College, there isn't a sport she hasn't tried. At Lodi Academy, she played every one the high school offered.
She was especially good at flag football, rushing for 48 touchdowns her senior season.
- Erica Davis, March 27, 2007
A passage from one of Erica's blog entries. To read more of her
blog, visit Erica's
A typical cavernous hemangioma looks somewhat like a raspberry, but it can range in size from microscopic to inches in diameter. It is made of multiple little bubbles of various sizes, filled with blood and lined by a special layer of cells.
These cells are similar to those that line normal blood vessels, but the bubble-like structures are leaky and lack the other layers of a normal blood vessel wall. They can cause seizures, stroke symptoms, hemorrhages and headaches.
They are estimated to occur in roughly 0.5-1 percent (1 in 100-200 people) of the population, and most people start having symptoms in their 20s or 30s. A solitary cavernous hemangioma may be present at birth or can develop later in life.
Erica's passion for athletics led her to physical education. At Pacific Union, she earned a degree in physical fitness while running and competing in intramural programs and assisting the school's P.E. instructors. After graduating, she taught P.E. and coached basketball for six months at a high school on the beach in Honolulu.
"It was a tough job," Erica joked.
After returning from Hawaii, Erica signed up for a master's program in strength and conditioning at California State University, Sacramento. She wanted to improve her skills as a coach and teacher. Or maybe, she thought, she could become a trainer for a professional sports team.
Classes began Jan. 23, 2006, but she never attended.
Less than a month before, the backaches started. They were excruciating. The chiropractor didn't help. Nor did a massage from her friend. By the third day, Erica felt tingling below her waist. The backaches persisted. Maybe it was a pinched nerve, she thought. A hospital X-ray ruled out the possibility of a tumor and doctors sent her home with pain pills.
"I didn't think it was anything too serious," Erica said. "Sometimes when I'm in pain, I kind of laugh it off. I went to pick up my prescription and my left leg was dragging. I try to find humor, even in that situation."
But laughs were hard to come by as she tried to sleep that night. At one point, she got up to go to the bathroom, clinging to the walls just to make it there. She crawled to get back. Erica was concerned but didn't bother waking her parents; she'd talk to them in the morning.
"I was hoping it was just a bad dream," Erica said. "I'd just wake up and it would be better."
The next morning, Erica tried to get out of bed. She collapsed on the floor.
"I made it downstairs on my butt," she said. "That was my last day walking."
At the age of 24, Erica's legs no longer worked.
It was New Year's Eve, and while most people were popping champagne, Erica lay in an ambulance headed for UC Davis Medical Center.
"They turned on the sirens for me at the stroke of midnight," Erica said.
A rare condition
Erica was born with clusters of abnormal blood vessels along her spinal cord known as cavernous hemangiomas, a condition that occurs in less than 1 percent of the population and causes symptoms in less than a third of those cases. No one could see this coming and nothing could be done to stop it.
The day her backaches began, one of the vessels hemorrhaged, causing nine inches of her spinal cord to inflame. But it took more than a month for doctors to figure out a leaked blood vessel had caused her paralysis.
Little is known about Erica's situation, so rare that the only person Erica and her parents could find who endured a similar fate was an elderly Australian man they tracked down on the Internet. A blood vessel leaked near his spine, causing partial paralysis, but far less of his spinal cord was effected than Erica's. He is now walking with a noticeable limp.
But thousands of miles away, his story provided little reassurance for Erica, alone with her unique condition.
"I couldn't do a thing to protect her," said Steve Davis, Erica's father. "I think that's the worst feeling for a parent."
If Erica wanted to be protected, it was only from the bleak outlook that people tend to adopt in such traumatic times. The sign on the door of Erica's hospital room said it all: "If you are grouchy, leave your negative thoughts and griping in the hallway before you come in."
The last thing Erica needed was to be burdened with other people's problems.
"Her attitude is amazing to us," Carol Davis said. "That first year I just cried every day - and she rarely cries. She just assumes she's going to walk again."
Drawing family together
Erica and her parents cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway - Erica riding her handcycle, her parents riding bikes. The 10- to 12-mile ride has become a weekend tradition for the Davis family. And for Steve Davis, it's precious time he gets to spend with the his wife and daughter - time that makes it more than worth the price of a plane ticket each week.
When Erica and Carol Davis moved to Southern California to be near the rehab clinic, Steve stayed behind in Lodi to run his real estate business and provide for the family. But he's with them every weekend, flying down after work on Fridays and returning on Mondays.
"We spent all of last year together, so it's tough on all three of us to be apart," Steve said. "Not to be there to encourage Erica, to see the progress that she's making."
The family still calls Lodi home. But in the meantime, living two blocks from the ocean isn't the worst of alternatives. And in Erica's case, it's also therapeutic.
"(Erica) said, 'My body works better when I get here,'" Carol said. "I had no idea how we could afford it, how the family would split up. We just assumed somehow God was going to work things out."
It hasn't been easy, but the family is making it work. And it seems they're relationships are stronger because of it.
"Since this happened, Erica and I are way closer than we've ever been," Carol said. "It's drawn our family closer. Unfortunately, that sometimes only happens after a trauma."
A sign of hope
To watch Laura Karch walk, you'd never know she was once a quadriplegic. And that's exactly how she wants it. The co-founder of Awakenings Health Institute doesn't like to discuss her previous disability with clients, believing it could give them misguided hopes.
"People wish that I would open up and talk about it more," said Karch, who was paralyzed in an auto accident, only to walk again seven years later. "Everybody's different. I want them to be self-motivated. They just have to want it, instead of wishing they were somebody else."
Karch credits gait training, a simulation of the walking motion, as the primary source of her recovery. She's trying to make that same training "the blood" of her organization.
"The whole goal of our program is to expose our clients to a very unorthodox approach," Karch said. "It's not physical therapy, it's exercise physiology. Physical therapy works with what you do have, we work on what they don't have through repetition."
And repetition is the embodiment of Erica's training regimen. Her weekly schedule: An hour of massage, two hours of acupuncture, three to four hours of gait training and another three to five hours of upper-body workouts - and that doesn't even include the work she puts in on her own time.
Erica wouldn't have it any other way. She wants to be pushed because she knows it's her best chance at recovery. She'd spent a year in physical therapy in Stockton, but that wasn't sufficient. That's why she and her mom moved south, where even at Awakenings her athleticism puts her ahead of the curve. As does her upper body strength, which, as Erica will attest, is nothing short of impressive.
"I have some guns," Erica boasts.
After nearly four months at Awakenings, Erica can slightly move her hips. And during gait training, she can feel some sensation in her legs.
"It's a good feeling," Erica said. "Something I haven't felt in a long time."
An undying will
Competing in her first triathlon since she lost her ability to walk, things are not going as planned. Erica has spent hours in the pool preparing for the swimming leg of today's triathlon, but her equipment is not cooperating.
The small, foam buoy refuses to stay in place between her legs. She gets into the pool, the buoy pops out. She swims one length of the pool without it. People assist her as she puts the buoy back between her legs, wrapping a belt around her waist to hold it in place. But the belt is simply getting in the way.
"What do you want to do (about the buoy)?" someone asks her.
"I just want to go," Erica replies. "I just want to do this."
So she does, finishing the swim while carrying the dead weight of her legs behind her. In one hour and 45 minutes, Erica has "run" 5 kilometers (using a push-rim racing chair), biked 12 miles in a handcycle and swam 150 meters, taking first place in her division at the PossAbilities Triathlon in Loma Linda.
As she accepts her medal, Erica learns she's the first paralyzed woman to complete the race in its five-year existence.
"(Quitting) never crossed my mind," Erica said, coolly.
She's never quit anything. Even back in eighth grade at Lodi Academy, when she fell and scraped her hands and knees during the 50-yard dash before picking herself up and jogging to the finish line.
Minutes later, she lined up for a second try. This was about proving to herself she could do it. About running hard. Letting nothing slow her down.
When it was over, Erica's mind was so fixed on the race that she didn't hear the yells back at the finish line. She'd broken the eighth grade record.
Now Erica just wants to walk. She may have been knocked down again, but her iron will stands strong.