Pleasanton Weekly

News - March 7, 2008

Standing tall

Man with paralysis helps others regain their independence

by Janet Pelletier

Dan and Annabelle Dumas are much like any other young couple--they love to vacation, especially in exotic locales such as Maui. But one summer in 2005, an accident would change everything.

As Dan tells it, he was swimming in the ocean when a giant wave crashed against him, forcing his body to topple over, snapping his neck against the ocean floor.

"I don't remember hitting my head," Dumas said. "If I didn't have someone with me, I would have drowned. I didn't have any pain, but I didn't feel anything either."

Friends who were vacationing with the couple helped Dan to shore, where he was rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital. What had happened was a devastating spinal cord injury that would mean life confined to a wheelchair.

Looking at Dan Dumas now, he's come a long way--longer than most and far exceeding every one of his doctors' expectations. The 34-year-old walks with the aid of crutches and has regained movement in his legs and arms.

He attributes his remarkable recovery, which continues to this day, in-part to exercise-based rehabilitation. More than two years after beginning the therapy, Dumas and his wife are now running a center in Pleasanton to help others who have faced a similarly debilitating injury or other neurological disorders. SCI-FIT, which stands for Spinal Cord Injury Functional Integrated Therapy, located at 1031 Serpentine Lane, is one of the few facilities in the area that offers this type of treatment.

"It's not really recognized by the medical community," he said.

After a three-month stay in the hospital, several surgeries including a spinal fusion and what Annabelle described as three near-death experiences, Dan went to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center for rehabilitation.

"My wife and I refused to accept it," he said of his diagnosis. "We thought there had to be other options."

"We're fighters," Annabelle added.

While Dan acknowledges he's had moments of despair about his future, it was the thought of leaving behind a life of activities such as traveling, waterskiing and playing golf that kept him positive about his recovery.

So, the couple's journey took them to Southern California to find special programs that would help him gain more movement in his limbs. They sold their Danville home and temporarily left their chain of laundromats and other business affairs to his father-in-law while he enrolled in intensive treatment programs in San Diego.

"I exercised five days a week, two hours a day," he said.

For two years, he continued that schedule and despite having first arrived in San Diego unable to feed himself, by the time he left, he was able to stand up and take steps (at six months), and walk at one year.

The Dumases moved back to the Tri-Valley last March with the goal of opening a facility like the ones Dan received training in.

"It was like karma," Annabelle said.

"I wanted to give this gift to others," Dan said. "We're business people. So, we took two trainers from San Diego, brought them up here and started SCI-FIT."

The result is a personal training facility that offers special accommodations for people with disabilities. Inside, the fitness machines are just like ones you'd see at any regular gym, some modified for the disabled. There is also special equipment such as an electro-stimulation bike that pushes the user to utilize their muscles and re-educate neuropathways, increasing muscle mass and blood circulation. From the get-go, SCI-FIT had five clients ready to start training and since, people have come from as far away as Bakersfield, Novato and Sacramento to train. The 16 clients who currently train at SCI-FIT have individualized programs and work out one-on-one up to six hours per week with trainers Bianca Clinch and Jerry Rainey, who were among Dan's team of trainers in San Diego.

The injuries and level of disability range from client to client--everything from sports injuries to pool accidents, a cheerleading fall, slipping in the bathroom to a tumor and having to breathe with a tube to paralysis from the tailbone down. Clients also range from 15 years old to 60 years old and while some are only seven months post-injury, others are up to seven years post-injury.

Sean Simonson of the Milpitas Fire Department, credits SCI-FIT for his great strides in recovery.

"I'm grateful to have a program like this nearby," he said. "Exercise-based therapy has created an avenue for me to gain my independence. As a C6-C7 quadriplegic, I am now often confused with the ability level of a paraplegic."

While Dumas is realistic in both his and others' recoveries, he said he is seeing positive improvement.

"My recovery was not typical," Dan said. "Only 3 percent ever walk again."

But, that doesn't take away the fact that clients are seeing improvements to their quality of life, he said. By providing SCI-FIT, the mission was to offer a program for people in the Bay Area that wouldn't require them having to relocate like he did for recovery. Annabelle added that they don't turn any clients away if they have trouble affording the program's expense.

Eventually, the couple plans to move to a larger facility once they can save enough money. Donations from the public on behalf of clients are welcomed.

For more information on SCI-FIT, visit www.sci-fit.org.

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