In May, Chris Mason-Hale posted a photo on his Facebook page of himself standing during a break from therapy at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Looking all of his 6 feet 4 with arms crossed and head slightly back, his body language and proud grin seemed to exude a so-you-thought-I'd-never-walk-again dare.
After the former Western Tech linebacker suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury in a scrimmage nearly three years ago, walking under even a little of his own power was never a certainty.
But this spring, Mason-Hale took his first steps since the injury.
"It felt great," he said. "I had to wait so long to do it, I was like, 'Let's do it again.' "
On June 24th, Mason-Hale wrapped up his latest three-month therapy stint at Kennedy Krieger by walking about 60 feet with a walker while using functional electrical stimulation (FES) on his thighs to help power his stride. The first 30 feet were meticulous, with physical therapist Kelly Joslyn helping him pull his foot all the way forward. On the second 30 yards, Mason-Hale moved quickly with minimal help — his best performance yet.
"He definitely has his old swagger," said Matt Quayle, a Western Tech assistant football coach who regularly visits Mason-Hale along with coach Alan Lagon and assistant coach Ryan Heaney.
Dr. Daniel Becker, head of pediatric restoration therapy in the spinal cord center, said Mason-Hale's progress indicates that he could eventually walk on his own.
Mason-Hale, 19, enjoys the workouts. During therapy, he said, he's so focused it's like being "in the zone" during a football game.
The night he got hurt, Aug. 29, 2008, the speedy linebacker was going for a tackle when he and the ball carrier unintentionally slammed helmets. Mason-Hale's head snapped back, breaking the C-5 vertebra and bruising his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the biceps down, but he had feeling in his arms, fingers and toes.
Once he got out of the hospital and into more therapy, Mason-Hale struggled with nausea and overwhelming leg spasms. He pushed through the nausea as he spent more time upright, but medication could not control the spasms. Now, he said, he has learned to work with the spasms rather than fighting them.
While getting over those physical hurdles, Mason-Hale also had to face the psychological challenges posed by such a traumatic, life-changing accident. By 2010, he had decided not to put his life on hold anymore.
"I took the initiative with my own life, I guess," he said. "I realized the only thing I couldn't do was what I didn't try."
That spring, Mason-Hale took classes at CCBC-Catonsville and he's now finished two semesters. He also volunteers at Kennedy Krieger and has developed a clearer understanding of what's happening in his body and why.
"It was just that whole mentality of, 'It'll be over soon and I'll just slip back into my old life,'" Mason-Hale said. "Once I let go of my old life — realizing things are going to change from here on; this is where I start anew — that's when I started making progress and I don't really see a limit on that progress right now. As far as I keep pushing, I think I can keep going."
That attitude is one of three major factors that favor his recovery, Becker said, along with his youth and support from his father Gary Hale, mother Aliecia Mason-Hale, and teenage siblings Teddy and Maya.
"The most important thing we need for our patients is your own motivation," Becker said. "Chris has that. We can prescribe you the most extensive, the most optimal rehabilitation program, but we can't do it for you. Being an athlete is great for him because he has learned what to do to [keep going] even when he doesn't want to. Your own motivation is crucial. If you don't have that, your chance of success is extremely low. In addition, the family support and his age give you kind of the perfect storm for recovery."
Each time he returned to Kennedy Krieger for another three-month bout of physical therapy, Mason-Hale found that he had gained more movement while he was away.
Becker said his patient has made excellent progress in regaining movement and sensation. Muscle function returns from top to bottom, Becker said, and Mason-Hale has recovered motor function through his trunk and some movement in his hip flexor muscles.
"In rehabilitation, that's all you need in order to walk," Becker said of the hip flexor movements. "Even if you have no movement in your toes or your knees at the time, I can brace that. Then I can stand you up. You can use your hip flexors to kind of bend your knee. … [The hip flexor is] the first muscle you have to activate to move your leg forward."
When walking in therapy, Mason-Hale uses electrical stimulation to help the muscles move when he wants them to as he retrains his legs to move in stride, one after the other.
With each step, he's rebuilding the connection between the brain and the muscles. In Mason-Hale's injury, Becker said, some of the "wiring" in his spinal cord was severed and some damaged. To repair the connection, they "have to reactivate the wires."
"That's what we do with therapy, through FES," Becker said. "When you stimulate the nerves to move the muscle, the body goes in and repairs these wires, and when it does, they start connecting. When they connect, all the sudden, you have gained flow of information from the brain through the wires in the spinal cord into the wire of the peripheral nerve into the muscle."
Mason-Hale won't return to Kennedy Krieger for therapy until later this year, but he is self sufficient at his family's Windsor Mill home. He's able to get in and out of his wheelchair, cook for himself and work out on his FES bike. He also has a stander — a device to brace himself so he can stand up.
This summer, he looks forward to hanging out with friends and taking driver's ed. Planning to become a film editor, he goes to lots of movies, including the recent midnight premier of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Then there's X-box. With nearly 100 percent range in his thumbs and wrists, Mason-Hale easily compensates for the lack of dexterity in his fingers as he blasts through Battlefield Bad Company 2.
Lagon, who sometimes watches Mason-Hale play the video game when he visits, marvels at his former player's physical recovery. But he's more impressed with his psychological strength.
"Adversity defines who you are, and Chris is turning out to be very mature," Lagon said. "This is forcing him to grow up more than other people have to. It's a tremendous challenge. Some people would just accept their fate, and he's not. When he was telling me that he's walking different lengths with the walker, he was grinning from ear to ear. You could tell just by the way he was describing it that he's really looking forward to the next stage."