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updated 5/5/2008 1:02:58 PM ET 2008-05-05T17:02:58

Third of three parts

The trip home was, in every way, bittersweet.

The kids were thrilled, back with friends and the house they had missed so much. They could swim in the privacy of their home in the woods of North Carolina, instead of an apartment pool in California.

John and Marci Pou had hoped, of course, to be returning under different circumstances. But as they had approached their one-year anniversary at Project Walk, they knew something had to give.

Money was too tight, and the children’s emotions seesawed between adjustment out west and their unfinished lives back east, where belongings and even a beloved cat remained.

The couple had pledged to give the exercise therapy program in Carlsbad, Calif., a year — 12 months to see if Project Walk could do anything to undo the effects of the diving accident that shattered the fifth cervical bone of John’s spinal column and left him a quadriplegic.

In December 2006, after his first six months, the Project Walk staff recommended they continue. But John and Marci spent much of the next six months re-examining their motivations for displacing Chase and Kacie and abandoning their lives in Iron Station, N.C., to give this therapy a shot.

They’d known all along that it was a dream. But Marci, especially, believed it a dream worth pursuing.

She had prayed every day for her miracle, that she’d wake one morning and see John standing by the bedside. But when the miracle didn’t come, she began to understand, “I don’t think God works that way. He guides us along a path.”

What, then, was their path?

There had been progress.

Like the morning in January when John transferred himself from their bed into his wheelchair, scooting his rear across a board until he was in place. Used to be, Marci had to move him.

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Changing idea of success
John had regained enough power to push himself around in a manual chair, dumping the power chair a doctor once predicted would be his fate. His balance had improved to where he could sit upright in an exercise bike without falling, even if a trainer still had to push his legs to get them to pedal.

These were the sort of small miracles that were common at Project Walk. For one man, it was building the strength to dance with his girlfriend. For another, it was being able to drive himself to and from his workouts.

For some, there were major milestones: The day that Donny Clark suddenly picked up his feet without help and shuffled across the workout room with a walker. The day Matt Theide managed 107 steps, a personal best.

The ultimate goal never dies, but the idea of success does change.

Still, were the smaller blessings enough to keep Marci and John, and the kids, going?

When they’d started the therapy, Marci had the sense that she wanted it even more than John did. But something had shifted, she said, revealing her feelings to an Associated Press reporter as she and her husband had done over 18 months of interviews.

At Project Walk, John’s policeman toughness resurfaced. He was a man with a goal again, delivering a full-on workout. As he chitchatted with the trainers, his old smile returned. Watching how other clients progressed fueled his competitiveness.

John’s legs weren’t healed, but his heart was on the mend.

In the end, the decisions weren’t so difficult. But telling the kids would be.

They waited a week into their North Carolina stay before calling a family meeting to break the news.

Seven-year-old Kacie burst into tears. “Why? Why?” she pleaded. Chase, two years older, got mad.

John and Marci tried to explain.

They had found a house in California. With its wide doorways and halls, it was relatively accessible. The big backyard opened onto a nature park. They put in an offer, and it was accepted.

And so, that June of 2007, they had gone to North Carolina to put their dream home on the market.

“That’s not a home,” Kacie insisted. “This is our home!”

As Marci struggled to keep her composure, John told the children they simply couldn’t afford to hold onto the home they’d grown up in. “We’ve had to make some tough decisions,” he said.

They took comfort in having learned over the year just how resilient their kids really were, and knowing that they grasped the difference between Daddy before Project Walk, and Daddy now. He laughed with them again, could pull up to a table and help with their homework.

For Marci, the trip home reinforced the idea that John had to be at Project Walk. In the month they were in North Carolina packing up, he regressed physically and emotionally. He got a urinary tract infection, his first in almost a year. He felt weak.

When they returned to California in mid-July, his demeanor improved almost immediately.

In August, the Project Walk trainers ran John through the exercises for his latest six-month evaluation.

On his first that summer of 2006, he’d scored a four. Then, six months later, a seven.

This time: 10. Yes, it was just three more points on the 0-to-40 scale. But they were happy.

October brought the 2007 Steps to Recovery fundraiser, with the largest crowd yet and all the stars.

Mike Thomas, Project Walk’s first client, awed everyone, walking a half-mile with only a couple of ski poles in hand. Patrick Ivison was walking again, and there were some newcomers, too.

But despite a challenge issued from Patrick the year before, John wasn’t one of them.

He was disappointed, of course, but he had never seen Project Walk as a magic bullet, an escape from the reality of paralysis. He’d come to accept that, and take heart from his improvement in body and soul.

“It makes it all worth what we did to come here,” he said.

When Project Walk founder Ted Dardzinski addressed the crowd, explaining that his center is “not a cure ... not a quick fix” for clients, John nodded.

“But they’re improving,” Dardzinski said, “they’re regaining function.”

'Modest but significant gains'
Project Walk had recently partnered with the University of California, Irvine, to measure any correlation between its therapy and spinal cord injury recovery. Steven Cramer, an associate professor of neurology at the school, had found “modest but significant gains” in examining 30 participants over six months.

“If somebody in the medical profession understands this,” Dardzinski said, “the treatment changes for spinal injuries.

“Everything changes.”

Marci now knew, too, that there was no such thing as a quick fix, though she had honestly believed that after a year at Project Walk, John would be on his feet and they would go home.

“But,” she said, “there is no home in North Carolina because there’s nothing for him there, but to sit and rot away in a chair. And his happiness is my happiness ...”

As the fundraiser drew to a close, she tried to mask her discouragement with optimism.

John, she said, would walk.

“It might take three or four years. But look at this year. Look at where we’ve come. I can’t believe that it couldn’t happen.

“I know it has to happen.”

On President’s Day this year, the kids came along for John’s workout.

It had been a few days of big accomplishments: For the first time without someone holding his hips, John kept his balance while kneeling and grasping a box. When John asked, “Who’s behind me?” only to hear, “Nobody,” his face lit up.

He had also stood, holding a bar, without anyone spotting his torso.

There’d been more good news outside of Project Walk: Someone had finally made an offer on the house.

And, now, this latest feat.

Marci called the children over to the stationary exercise bicycle and turned on the video camera.

With Marci urging him on as always, John shifted his hips to one side, then the other, easing into a rhythmic, back-and-forth totter as he pushed with all his might on the pedals.

“Come on,” Marci coaxed, as Chase peered over the top of John’s wheelchair and Kacie stood by her brother, staring.

A therapist gave the wheel a spin to help get him going, but then John took over, pedaling right and left, right and left, using his swaying hips to force his legs forward, down and back again.

“Whoa!” Kacie exclaimed suddenly. “He’s doing it by himself.”

“Shhhh,” said Chase, as though he didn’t want anything distracting his dad.

But Kacie couldn’t contain herself.

“Oh my gosh. He’s moving his legs by himself!”

She turned to her mother, her jaw dropping.

“It’s a miracle,” said the little girl.

Marci giggled and John pedaled on and on, while their kids enjoyed every second of the miracle that was their father’s infinite determination.

'Knowledge. Determination. Results.'
Two days later came the biggest “first” yet.

Marci heard someone yelling her name. Looking across the workout room, she saw John surrounded by four trainers and, in front of him, one of the rolling walkers that first-time steppers use.

Then they had him up, and John beamed.

They didn’t even count how many steps he managed; it was no longer a number that mattered, or the fact that it took all four therapists to help, picking up and planting each leg, supporting him, pulling the walker along.

What mattered was how he looked that day, as he took his first steps, past the words painted on a wall that read, “Knowledge. Determination. Results.”

“Wow,” said another client’s caregiver, who had stopped to watch. “He’s tall.”

The slumped shoulders, the frown, the defeated man of 2½ years ago were all a memory.

Whether John ever accomplishes the ultimate goal of walking on his own, he and Marci know they have tasted triumph. It’s the simple gift of having goals once again, of being able to make his children proud, of refusing to give up, despite ... everything.

It’s knowing that when he struggles to stand, he stands so tall.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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