It's a sunny morning in Westminster, and the pulleys are squeaking, the weights clinking as a half-dozen members of a small gym give the equipment a workout.
Bouncy music comes though a stereo's speakers. A trainer encourages a client on a treadmill. A large banner on the wall reads, "Believe In Miracles!"
Gina Gilligan-Della said she has seen more than her share of those.
Gilligan-Della, 48, is the founding president of TheraFit Gym, a fitness center designed to serve individuals with severe physical disabilities from spinal-cord injury to the after-effects of stroke.
It's one of the few such facilities in the nation that offer specialized equipment for clients to use long-term and on an outpatient basis. And despite that it's based on a theory of rehabilitation medical science only began exploring about a decade ago, the membership rolls are full, the staff of four certified therapists is busy and members' loved ones are singing thankful praises.
"[My daughter] was never able to move her legs on her own," said Vicki Pickett of Mount Airy, of Dana Pickett, 32, who was born with cerebral palsy and started her program at TheraFit in 2007. "It didn't happen overnight, but thanks to TheraFit, and Gina, Dana can now [maneuver] around in a walker. I've shed a lot of happy tears at that gym."
With its mirrored walls and side-by-side exercise stations, TheraFit looks at first glance like any small suburban gym. What sets it apart is a relatively new theory — that regular, repeated exercise is good for those who can't move on their own, and in fact can help restore the power to move — and a $16,000 piece of equipment, the QuadriCiser, that helps put that idea into effect.
With its seat for the user, grips for lifting with the hands and pedals for the feet, the QuadriCiser looks like a Nautilus machine, but aides or loved ones can strap the user in, fastening his or her hands to the grips and feet to the pedals.
A motor then operates the system, recreating, for example, the process of walking. As a member's muscles develop over time, he or she learns to supply some of the force independently.
As recently as 2002, Gilligan-Della, a computer technician by trade, never imagined she'd need such a machine.
One evening that January, a pair of police officers appeared at her Westminster home with terrible news: Her youngest brother, Richard Ayres, had been in a head-on auto accident in Washington, D.C., and was expected not to survive.
The wreck left Ayres paralyzed, comatose and in a vegetative state. Doctors told family members he would never improve. But they decided to help Rich, whatever the cost.
What happened next will sound familiar to many family members of disabled individuals. Ayres spent the next several months living in hospitals, receiving acute care to keep him alive. At the end of a year, he was still in a comatose state, his muscles were badly atrophied, and his insurance ran out.
Something told Gilligan-Della that regular exercise would help her brother. No matter how hard she looked, though, she could find no facility where he could get long-term access to specialized fitness equipment. An Internet search led her to the website of QuadriCiser Inc., a company based in Knoxville, Tenn.
She joined with her mother to buy one and put it in her basement. She got certified as a fitness therapist. And she went to work with Rich.
Within a few months, Gilligan-Della said, she felt movement in Ayres' left foot, then elsewhere. He later emerged, slowly, from his coma. At 42, he is still wheelchair bound, but he can move all four limbs, stand, walk several stairs at a time, do 100 situps and initiate conversations with his 12-year-old son.
"We've seen triumph out of this tragedy," Gilligan-Della said.
She founded TheraFit in 2006, saw her client base expand from three to more than 25, and moved to the current 2,000-square-foot site in December. Today the gym boasts four QuadriCisers, two supported walkers and an elliptical machine adapted for people with disabilities.
Most insurance policies cover the first phase of training, a regimen of specialized physical therapy. Coverage continues as long as therapists can document improvement. Clients may then use the equipment as part of a long-term fitness program, usually paying out of pocket, though they're also eligible for state grants and the support of private donors.
About the same time Gilligan-Della was beginning her second career, a few medical institutions were also exploring what is now called activity-based restorative therapy.
At one such place, the seven-year-old International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy-Krieger in Baltimore, five physicians and 45 therapists now see about 50 patients a day, and others can train at a wellness center not unlike TheraFit.
"Even 10 or 15 years ago, people thought recovery happened only in the first six months or a year, then stopped," said Rebecca Martin, manager of clinical training at ICSCI. "We now know movement can be recovered long after an injury. But that recovery is activity-dependent."
For patients in both places, progress comes in small stages.
Take Jared Lutz of Eldersburg. He was paralyzed and brain-damaged in a pole-vaulting accident in 2008. When he began at TheraFit, he lacked the power even to hold the handles.
Therapists took to attaching his hands to the QuadriCiser as it ran. One day about three months later, Gilligan-Della suggested removing the straps.
Jared gripped the handles throughout a 45-minute workout, and everyone in the place burst into tears.
"That might sound like a small thing, but for us, tiny things can be huge," said his father, Brandon Lutz. "Gina teaches the art of the possible."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun