Kindness of a stranger
Taking a short walk in a warm pool might not seem like much, but for 21-year-old Matt Hankey, the simple act at Avamere Health and Fitness Center in Medford Friday was monumental.
Hankey hasn't walked in nearly five years.
The Medford man has been bound to a power wheelchair since he suffered a massive brain stroke in April 2012 at age 16. The stroke was caused by an arteriovenous malformation, an extremely rare condition in which a tangle of blood vessels in the brain diverts blood from the arteries directly to the veins.
He's spent much of the time since his stroke fundraising and fighting insurance restrictions that wouldn't approve hydrotherapy. But Hankey has long contended that water therapy would aid his recovery.
Then along came a stranger from Maryland — Ann Tan, a fellow AVM survivor.
Tan met Hankey in an online survivors group and says she was impressed by his sense of humor and positive outlook.
"When he asked if there was hope for recovery later in the game — he was two-plus years out from his AVM and I was three to four years out — I was drawn to his post," says Tan, who has recovered. "I answered, 'yes!' Then he clicked through to my blog and started leaving these hilariously sad and apt comments.
"When I had my stroke, I was 30, I had savings, I had insurance. ... He was a child. He had nothing and he had to fight to get therapy. The transition from childhood to manhood is hard enough and he has had to fight for his recovery. At his age, he should be deciding if he wants to go to school or work or what he wants to do with his life. I want him to do all those things."
Tan found a pool therapist in the Rogue Valley, paid for Hankey's first 20 sessions and started a fundraising page called Shredded Grace (ShreddedGrace.com).
The effort raised nearly $5,000 in two weeks.
Hankey began his thrice-weekly water therapy sessions in November. By Dec. 16, he went from having not moved his legs in five years to taking more than a dozen steps.
During Friday's intensive workout alongside water therapist Diahanne Bedortha, Hankey, whose speech has been limited since his stroke, boasted a constant smile in the therapy pool, obviously pleased with his progress.
"My trainer has been amazed by how fast I'm progressing," he posted on Facebook recently. "I don't think I have any specific goals right now besides hitting our fundraising goal on Shredded Grace and just to keep pushing myself and continue improving movement in my left leg that I just recently started stepping with in the pool."
A competitive skater who got his first skateboard at age 5, Hankey was recruited for a competitive skateboarding team by middle school and still watches videos of his stunts online. Hankey now focuses on moving his left leg and using his good arm to push a water dumbbell into the water to gain traction.
Bedortha has been impressed by Hankey's progress.
"When I first started with him, I was just trying to work on range of motion, but immediately he wanted to start trying to walk. By the third time he was able to move his leg and now he's moving it constantly. I couldn't believe the first time he moved it.
"He's just making amazing progress."
Tan, who suffered her AVM in 2011, also marvels at Hankey's progress.
"If he's this determined to get himself walking again, he's going to be unstoppable," she says.
Hankey says he feels lucky for support from the community and Tan.
"I honestly don't know how exactly she decided to help, we were just emailing and I told her about how we've been planning the Hope for Hankey campaign and she wanted to do something more realistic that we could put to use immediately, then she found my pool trainer for me and I've been making gains ever since," he said on Facebook.
Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.