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He's grinding back to independence

Electrical impulses pumped through electrodes force Matt Thomas' withered legs to churn the pedals on a stationary bicycle, simultaneously creating grueling therapy and momentary respite on his long journey to recovery.

During these hours of aggressive treatment for paralysis, Thomas finds himself drifting off at times, seeing himself pedaling the local mountain trails that he once tackled passionately and aggressively.

But before the old endorphins can kick in, a quick glance downward yanks him back into the moment, the latest in his long quest to some day walk again.

"Sometimes I space out and think about riding a bike somewhere," says Thomas, 36, of Medford. "I can't feel it, but it's kind of cool to see my legs pedaling."

Thirteen months after breaking his neck in a mountain-biking crash, Thomas is grinding his way back to independence through aggressive therapies designed to get him out of an electric wheelchair and perhaps back on a bike or in a kayak someday.

He's returning home today from a two-month stint at a Southern California rehab center, where he underwent a regimen of exercises meant to keep his body ready for the day when advancements in science can put people like Thomas back on their feet.

Exercises and treatments at Project Walk in Carlsbad, Calif., were designed to add strength to muscles Thomas still cannot control, let alone feel, below his chest.

His favorite is the special bike, where the series of electrical shocks fired in a specific rhythm force his legs to spin the pedals. The hour-long sessions are designed to strengthen his limbs and perhaps create new avenues to fire impulses through his ravaged spine again.

"I can feel the tingling sensation when my muscles start to contract," Thomas says. "On the surface of my skin, I can't feel it. But I definitely feel more sensation.

"I feel like if there's any way my mind can make a connection to my legs, it is pedaling a bike," Thomas says.

What the bike once gave, it later took all away.

Thomas was 10 minutes into what was supposed to be a day-long ride on July 9, 2009, in the Wagner Creek drainage near Ashland when he approached a jump across a gap in the Chuck's Chips trail.

It's a jump he traversed several times before. This time, however, his bike zoomed over the landing ramp, his front tire digging into the hard soil. The impact launched Thomas forward, his head pile-driving into an earthen berm.

The impact blew out his sixth vertebrae, sending bone fragments into his neck.

His spinal-cord injury is classified as a Level A, the most severe. Odds are he'll never walk again.

Since his initial surgeries at Providence Medford Medical Center, Thomas has attacked his therapy aggressively and with a keenly positive approach his therapists consider unique and uplifting.

"He just seems to have this incredible way of putting the whole circumstance in perspective," says Gail Frank, an occupational therapist at Providence who has worked with Thomas. "Even early on, he had a pretty marvelous attitude.

"He's an amazing, highly motivated person," Frank says. "Sometimes, your patients teach you more than you teach them."

Most of the treatments for the former engineer have been paid through Medicaid. But he had to dip into his own pockets to fund his trip to Project Walk, one of a handful of centers delving into aggressive therapies for spinal-cord rehabilitation.

He and his parents shared a friend's small mother-in-law apartment in Encinitas while Thomas paid $100 an hour for two months' worth of three-times-a-week, three-hour sessions.

"You do what you can," Thomas says. "You're certainly not going to walk sitting and waiting for insurance companies to help you."

He returns to Medford with a stronger core, better legs and a left triceps muscle clearly stronger than before.

Thomas won't let himself believe he will never bike, kayak or walk again.

But for now, getting out of the electric wheelchair and into a manual one will do.

"It's a royal pain in the ass, but it gets me around," he says.

"I'm getting positive results," Thomas says. "It's slow, but nothing happens fast with this."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Matt Thomas