Canton rehab doubles in size to assist more patients

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Journey Forward founder Dan Cummings with Denna Laing, former professional women’s hockey player with the Boston Pride of the NWHL. Laing suffered a severe spinal cord injury at last year’s Outdoor Women’s Classic at Gillette Stadium.

Journey Forward founder Dan Cummings with Denna Laing, former professional women’s hockey player with the Boston Pride of the NWHL. Laing suffered a severe spinal cord injury at last year’s Outdoor Women’s Classic at Gillette Stadium.

Journey Forward, a paralysis rehabilitation facility founded in 2008 by spinal cord injury survivor Dan Cummings, recently moved its operation to a new location in Canton to accommodate the growing demand for client services. The nonprofit organization’s workspace, located across the street at 5 Shawmut Road, is now double the size, expanding from 6,000 to 12,000 square feet, allowing for more equipment and additional bandwidth to serve more clients making their way back from devastating spinal cord injuries and other forms of paralysis.

“Moving to a larger building was critical to the growth of our organization,” said John Walters, Journey Forward’s vice president and program director. “Now we finally have enough space to add more of our advanced exercise machines, which means we’re able to treat a larger volume of clients.”

Journey Forward uses state-of-the art equipment, including anti-gravity treadmills, specialized exercise bikes, and machines such as the Lokomat — an advanced physiological gait-training machine used to develop nerve and muscular strength — to help paralyzed individuals reach their goal of a more independent life. Journey Forward recently purchased a second Lokomat, making them the only facility in New England providing two of these advanced machines under the same roof. All exercises done at Journey Forward are done while clients are out of their wheelchairs.

Journey Forward works with paralyzed clients of varying physical abilities, stemming from injury or disability. “Although the goal is getting our clients walking again, we have to listen to those clients’ needs and work with them to achieve milestones that will improve their lives,” said Cummings. “Sometimes those goals are fundamental actions we don’t have to think about, like feeding ourselves, brushing our teeth, and tying our shoes. These are instinctual habits, until you become paralyzed. Then they’re your greatest challenges.”

When Cummings was 19, he became paralyzed from the neck down in a boating accident and was told he would never walk again. Seven years later, after working hard to master those fundamental skills, and then to live independently, he defied the odds and took his first steps. His resilience and determination prompted the creation of Journey Forward, and the realization of his dream to provide others like him a path towards a better life.

Cummings chose to start his own facility where he could provide the type of treatment he thought was most effective for his clients, and he wanted to ensure it was a nonprofit organization as well. After rehabbing his own injury for many years, he was able to identify some real differentiators in the way those suffering from paralysis are treated. Early on, Journey Forward became part of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s NeuroRecovery Network (NRN). This means that Cummings and his team provide working data from their facility to lead medical researchers at NRN, who can examine results and then advise Journey Forward on best practices. The Journey Forward staff undergoes yearly training overseen by NRN, and Cummings believes that collaboration with the medical field has greatly improved his clients’ chances of recovery.

“The new techniques and information NRN is able to share with us is really game-changing,” he said. “We’re truly grateful for this incredible partnership with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. We know it’s what truly sets us apart.”

Today, the facility serves 78 clients and employs 16 staff members, including administrators and trainers. Unlike other paralysis rehab organizations, all of Journey Forward’s trainers are exercise physiologists who work in an aggressive and functional manner on different activities like gait training, load bearing, and full body neural stimulation. They focus on movements that alleviate physical deficits at a basic level so that patients can make overall progress, rather than physical therapy, which generally focuses on patient strengths.

Journey Forward is one of only a handful of intense, activity-based therapy centers in the nation that provides the type of training and cutting-edge equipment that enables client success stories. As a result, clients come from all over the country and even as far as Uganda to work with its top-notch, activity-based therapy team. Several high-profile quadriplegics are currently clients, including the NWHL’s Denna Laing and secret service agent Garrett FitzGerald, and many others have been clients in the past.

Cummings’ vision for his clients requires a big investment in the process. Currently, Journey Forward still has to charge its clients, since many insurance companies do not cover the cost of intense, activity-based therapy, primarily because a recovery timetable cannot always be established. The nonprofit has, however, been able to maintain the same $100 per hour price for treatment — well below the national average for this form of therapy — since opening its doors in June of 2008. Journey Forward is able keep client costs as low as possible by hosting various annual fundraisers to offset operation costs, and its financial aid program has provided help for nearly two dozen of them. Those events include a one-mile walk held near the facility where clients showcase their yearly progress; a casino night featuring former Brady Bunch star Chris Knight as host; and through fundraising via the John Hancock Non-Profit Program’s bib giveaway for the Boston Marathon.

“Our events are exciting and promote positivity, but beyond that they’re so important for our mission,” said Cummings. “Without amazing support from sponsors who donate year after year, like Arbella Insurance, Eastern Bank, the Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation, Today’s Collision and Sullivan Tire, as well as continued support from The Red Sox Foundation and Intrasystems, none of what we’re able to offer would be possible.”

Cummings said that he and his family understand the financial strain of this type of therapy firsthand. They want to help every client they can and they have no intention to raise their hourly rate, but instead gain more support for their fundraising efforts and grow their services. More recently, Cummings and his team have expanded Journey Forward’s mission to include clients who have sustained a brain injury, a stroke, or are affected by cerebral palsy.

Journey Forward supporters are also working with health insurers to cover access to the program for their beneficiaries. The techniques have been shown to help some people with paralysis, and the exercise it provides can reduce secondary complications, such as blood clots and pressure sores. Cummings maintains it’s no mistake that he hasn’t been treated for such issues in more than a decade.

“I am so proud of our organization and the impact it’s made on those who have suffered devastating spinal cord injuries and other forms of paralysis,” he said. “I’ve seen so many people who were confined to a wheelchair take their first steps, against even the worst odds. I know we’re making strides every day at Journey Forward, and the future is a lot brighter than it was for me at 19. Now the sky’s the limit. We can achieve anything we set our minds to.”

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