As physical therapist Meredith Leonardi applies pressure to the Total Gym that Steve Ereth is strapped to, he squats, his entire face cringes and he breathes loudly.
He sighs when he gets to stand again, his knees throbbing with pain.
Ereth has faced four surgeries to reconstruct his legs, spent hundreds of hours lying in bed in pain and sweated through days of cringe-inducing physical therapy. His legs were mangled after he was hit by a car while delivering mail on Ham Lane in Lodi.
But through it all, he has kept a positive attitude and focused on his one goal: Steve Ereth wants to walk so he can deliver mail once again.
"It's hard to put into words because I'm the kind of person who adapts," Ereth said. "... I'm unhappy this happened to me, but it could've been anybody. I'm not so special that it couldn't be me."
On July 7, 2011, Ereth, who is 50, double-checked the traffic on Ham Lane before stepping into the crosswalk. He was almost to the other sidewalk when he was struck by an SUV traveling west.
He has no recollection of the car striking him, but he was later told that he was thrown 30 feet across the intersection, and his legs were bent and mangled.
His first and only memory for the first couple of days was from the ambulance when they were cutting off his shorts.
Ereth had lacerations, bleeding in his brain, a fracture underneath his right eye and three fractures in his pelvis. The doctors told him the only thing holding his left leg together were the tendons.
Casey Holt, who is Ereth's partner, happened to be home that day and received a call that Ereth had been hit by a car.
"I was shocked. You don't know if he could be dead or just scratched," Holt said.
Ereth spent more than a week in the Intensive Care Unit, and he remembers having weird dreams and feeling oddly calm about the experience.
"To be honest, I had no idea why I was there, but I didn't question it. ... To me it's weird that I haven't freaked out about this whole situation," he said.
The two, who both went to high school in Lodi, have always worked full-time jobs to get by — Ereth at the Post Office and Holt at a trucking company in Stockton. When Ereth woke up, Holt was surprised by one of his first reactions to being in the hospital.
"He was awake saying, 'I don't want to come out to a financial mess,'" Holt said.
In total, Ereth was in the hospital for 37 days. After the four surgeries, he has four stitches in his head and screws in his pelvis.
He then moved home, where he had home care to help him do everything. They modified the shower to fit his wheelchair and installed ramps so he could wheel around the house.
With the help of therapy, he now can shower by himself, do chores, cook and move throughout his house using his walker. He exercises every day to improve his flexibility and strength, although he admits it can be a challenge.
"Sometimes, being at home a lot, the boredom sets in and the motivation is hard to get going with the exercises," he said.
The two said they have had their meltdowns as they try to juggle Ereth's recovery, finances and caring for a home on three-quarters of an acre in Thornton. Holt's life has also been turned upside down as he balances a full-time job with physical therapy appointments and postpones any social activities, including the celebration of their 25th anniversary.
"When people go through this, it creates a deeper bond. You better love the person you are with because you never know when they will be taken away," Holt said.
Throughout all of the painful therapy and long days, Ereth keeps his mind on returning to work as a mail carrier.
"I know one day I'll be back to work like normal, but the financial part is stressful. I love my job. It's the right fit for me," Ereth said.
He has worked as a mail carrier for 15 years, working in Mountain House, Livermore and Modesto before he was finally transferred to Lodi. He has always loved work and was ready to go back in at the end of vacations, Holt said.
Ereth said he does not dwell on the accident, and he thinks he could even do the route that crosses Ham Lane again.
"Maybe the first time I'd take a second look — or maybe the first ten, twenty or thirty times — but it is not something I dwell on," he said.
Holt has kept all of Ereth's co-workers informed of his treatment. He estimates he exchanged more than 1,000 texts with postal employees while at the hospital.
The employees have cooked food and then sold it to raise money for Ereth's expenses.
"We live paycheck to paycheck. They are all rallying around us," Holt said.
Throughout the last six months, Ereth said he has struggled but is making progress. His first milestone was a long, hard-fought battle to slide from his bed into his wheelchair.
He spends time two days a week going through painful therapy to help him walk with Meredith Leonardi at Lodi Memorial Hospital West on Lower Sacramento Road. He is also working with another therapist to improve mobility in his left arm.
"That's kind of what I need. In so many ways, I'm a follower, so if I can have someone leading me and telling me the outcome then I'll do it," Ereth said.
When they first put him on walking bars, he took off before anyone could help him, Holt said.
Leonardi doesn't take it easy on him. She focuses on his knees, especially the left one, to get them to bend properly. She'll strap him down with seatbelts and then pull on his legs and bend them.
"He was in a wheelchair and could put no weight on his legs because they didn't bend right, and he would fall back," Leonardi said.
But several weeks ago, he walked without his walker for the first time.
Holt continually realized Ereth's strength while going through the healing process, and said his progress is impressive.
"To see the pain he goes through, I would not have been in the place where he is," Holt said.