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Wheelchair to wilderness

Re-learning an active lifestyle

Darrell Jerden shows off the day's catch on his post-recovery trip to Quetico Provincial Park in Canada.

Print-Quality Photo

A year ago, Darrell Jerden hoped he could learn to walk again. Today, he is hiking, canoeing and feeling better than ever. Jerden says he owes his recovery to the fitness program he started before his injury.

Like many Americans, Jerden once felt too busy to exercise. "There wasn't time in the day," Jerden said. "It wasn't until about two years ago that I got my construction business to the point where it could run on its own for an hour while I went to work out." He decided to get back in shape, and joined the Adult Fitness Program run by Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Kinesiology.

"The program was a great fit for me," Jerden said. "They evaluated my fitness, wrote up a plan based on my goals, and designed a program that included weight training and cardiovascular exercise. After a year I felt like I had made great gains in my conditioning."

One misstep at work brought Jerden's progress to a halt. "I was up on the roof of a church putting together a screen for the heating and cooling units," he recalls. "I started climbing down the ladder carrying supplies with one hand and holding on with the other when I stepped down and missed a rung." He fell feet-first, breaking bones in both feet and shattering a heel.

For ten weeks after his fall, Jerden was confined to a wheelchair. Missing work was difficult, but he felt even more frustrated by not being able to exercise. "I was really disappointed in myself for letting this happen. I felt like I would lose all the fitness gains that I worked for and have to start over," he said.

Luckily, Jerden's hard work before the fall made him resilient. "My doctors told me if I hadn't been in such good shape before the fall, my recovery would have been a much slower process," he said. He started physical therapy right away, and soon he was able to return to the Adult Fitness Program with the aid of a walker.

The AFP team designed a training program for Jerden that focused on rehabilitating his feet. He worked to build stability and range of motion in the ankles and gradually began to walk laps around a track, first with a cane and then on his own. "It took 10 or 11 months, but I went from not being able to complete a lap to finishing three miles without stopping. Now I'm almost as fit as I was before the fall," he said.

The true test of his recovery, Jerden said, was a week-long canoeing and camping trip with his friends to Quetico Provincial Park, a wilderness area on the Canadian border. "The whole area we were in had no roads or cabins, just woods, lakes and streams. We had to carry our canoes from one lake to the next. I was apprehensive about whether my feet and ankles could withstand the rocky terrain. But I was able to do it, and now I am convinced that 'if you think you can or think you can't, you are probably right!'"

Jerden still has some pain in his feet, but his workout program is back in full swing. In addition to his walking program, he is lifting weights, using cardiovascular training equipment like the elliptical trainer and the treadmill, and even returning to the sport of his youth, swimming. His new goal is to focus on losing the weight he gained after the fall. "I also had some weight to lose that had crept on over the last 20 years or so. I know getting my weight down will help take pressure off my feet and improve my health overall," he said.

Jerden's advice to anyone dealing with an injury or other physical setback is to choose a patient mindset that allows for small, incremental steps toward recovery. "You can't look for improvement daily," he said. "It's going to be two steps forward and one step back, so progress is almost imperceptible. You have to be willing to stick it out until you can look back at where you were a month ago and see how far you've come."

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