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Theo St. Francis overcoming odds to regain mobility

When Theo St. Francis is in a kayak or sitting at a table you would never know he’s endured a spinal cord injury accident – and that’s just how he likes it.

“I want people to see the regular person more than the injured and recovering side,” he said. His goal is to overcome his physical challenges and resume his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology without being dependent on a wheelchair.

Just three years ago, St. Francis’s goals were entirely different.

It was in 2013, during a pre-orientation program in ocean engineering, just as he was about to begin his freshman year at MIT that St. Francis broke his C6 vertebra when he dove into the bay and hit something that will be forever unknown. He washed ashore “like a beached whale” and told the lifeguards who rushed to him to call 911.

He immediately underwent surgery at Massachusetts General to fuse his vertebrae and prevent further damage, followed by weeks of rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehab near Boston and another month and a half at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, where he relearned basic things, like how to brush his teeth. His parents, Ray and Susan, and brother Adrian were with him in Boston at the time of the accident. They had hoped to share the joy of Theo starting out at his dream school, where he qualified not only academically but as a nationally-recognized competitor in the 200-meter backstroke, and was recruited to the swim team.

When he returned home to Sonoma, his wheelchair was delivered on Dec. 23. It was not quite the present he was hoping for on his 19th birthday.

St. Francis focused on the fact that there was no brain injury – and set his brilliant mind toward devising a plan for his comeback.

Paralyzed from the chest down, with movement in his shoulders and arms but no fine motor ability in his fingers, St. Francis refused to accept what the doctors told him – that he would never walk again.

Last December he turned 21 and was able to sit up straight on a barstool when his buddies took him out to celebrate. Yes, he uses a manual wheelchair, but he is out of it much of the day, engaging in intense physical therapy.

“I prefer to spend as little time in the wheelchair as possible, because it is not the best for my posture and body mechanics and, as a mental aspect in particular, I want to be in an environment that aligns with what my goals are.”

St. Francis can now drive an adapted car, ride on a tandem bike with someone else peddling, surf prone on a surfboard and kayak.

And since “begging” his therapists only weeks after surgery to allow him back in the pool, he now swims once a week, preferring open water in the summer months. He uses floats on his hips and knees for stability and propels himself with his longtime favorite, the backstroke. In January, he spent several days skiing at Lake Tahoe with the help of Achieve Tahoe, sitting on a bi-ski and tethered to an expert to keep him out of the trees and help with deceleration. The rest of the ride was all his doing, and he was elated. “Tearing it up in the beautiful Sierra’s was a terrific way to ring in the New Year,” said St. Francis.

During the first year of his “recovery” – a word St. Francis emphasizes regularly – he participated in a traditional spinal cord injury exercise regimen at Sci-fit in Pleasanton, where he made considerable progress. He also studied.

“I realized early on if I was going repair this biological machine of mine I needed to know how it worked,” and so he started reading anatomy and physiology books.

The one that truly spoke to him was “Anatomy Trains” by Thomas Myer, which focuses on fascia and connective tissue. So he was very intrigued when a friend told him about a physical therapist in Hawaii, Alejandra Monsalve, who specializes in Neuro Kinetic Pilates, which is based on the principles described in that book. He spent a month working with Monsalve on Maui last March, and returned for two more months at her clinic last September and October. “It was a life-changing experience,” he said. “I was looking for ways to better connect my muscles, and pilates is what I’ve found really works.”

Using special exercises that she’s developed, Monsalve has found a way to connect muscles and optimize movement. St. Francis has substantially increased his core muscle strength, allowing him to better support his back and increase his ability to sit upright.

After what he learned from Monsolve, he switched his therapy sessions to Absolute Pilates in Lafayette, spending four hours there, three days a week. He also has pilates equipment in his home, a reconfigured living room he calls “action central.” He works out there on his own as well as twice a week with a therapist.

When St. Francis is not exercising, which is much of his day, he reads, communicates with a wide network of friends and keeps his blog, “TheOvercoming,” up to date with his latest thoughts and progress.

“I was told I would never walk again, but those things are always subjective,” St. Francis said. “Scientists have been shown time and time again that what we think is fact can end up being not entirely true. So the phrase I use is the subjectivity of the impossible, and I put the impossible in quotes.”

Theo started swimming competitively when he was 7 with the Sonoma Sea Dragons and attended St. Francis Solano, where he was valedictorian. He swam 20 hours a week all through his high school years at North Bay Aquatics, while attending Marin Academy, where he was chosen to give the senior speech. He credits the work ethic and discipline he learned as a swimmer with fueling his positive attitude and progress.

Last fall, two years after the devastating accident, St. Francis returned to MIT for a visit. He hung out with his swim teammates, attended labs, explored campus and focused on the future, when he will return. “I was so fired up,” he said.

“This recovery is aimed at getting me to a place where my body is not a hindrance but a facilitator to the goals I have.” St. Francis wants to study robotics, and has no doubt he will return to MIT. The question is when.

“As soon as I am out of a wheelchair. I wish I could tell you when that will be, but I need my body to be much stronger than it is right now. The only protocol is ‘get used to being in a wheelchair,’ so there’s really no other option but to take responsibility for yourself. And I’m glad I have a team that can help me with it.”

Contact Carole by email at cmkvom@gmail.com.

More about ‘Theovercoming’
Learn more about Theo’s journey ​over the past two years ​at his blog: www.theovercoming.org.
Sonoma Valley High School senior Brianna Lehane has been working with Theo on his physical therapy this year and learning more about spinal cord injury recovery as part of her senior project. ​“​I never leave one of our sessions without learning something invaluable. Working with Theo has been a blessing,” she said.
None of Theo’s physical therapy is covered by insurance. To support his recovery​, you can​ make a tax-deductible contribution through HelpHOPELive.org under Theo St​.​ Francis or mail a check to 100 Matsonford Rd., Suite 100, Radnor, PA 19087.