ifteen years after a profoundly life-altering accident, Aaron Baker lives a life that medical professionals never would have believed possible. A motocross racer deemed a complete quadriplegic after a training accident in 1999, Baker is now fully independent, walking only with a single-point cane, and accomplishing huge feats of physical and mental endurance. His incredible drive and commitment to his rehabilitation is inspiring people around the world and proving that the human spirit is a force of limitless power.
Baker is the subject of a new documentary in the works by Encompass Films, which will help bring the complexities of life after spinal cord injury to mainstream audiences. Titled Coming to My Senses, the film will document Aaron’s 15-year struggle to reclaim movement, share the effects of sudden trauma on his family and introduce a new paradigm for rehabilitation in the spinal cord injury community.
Fiercely Determination to Heal Despite Dismal Prognosis
At 20 years old, Baker’s motorcycle stalled mid-air during a practice run. When it touched down, the wheels locked, sending him over the handlebars. Landing in a dive position, the crash broke his cervical vertebrae 4-5-6. He couldn’t feel anything below his neck. Baker was given emergency surgery and clinically died after six days in intensive care but was brought back to life.
“My ego completely vanished the moment I hit the ground,” shared Baker. “I knew in that second that it was all gone. I couldn’t move a muscle in my body; I couldn’t take a breath on my own. I was brought into the hospital and relied on machines to keep me alive. My mother looked down at me as I laid in bed, and all I could do was blink. Multiple neurosurgeons gave me a one-in-a-million chance of ever feeding myself again, but this only fueled the fire within me. I thought, who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do? You don’t know me. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
He was right. Baker is an athlete: mentally, physically and emotionally. An athlete’s mind is fueled by excessive drive and excessive determination in the pursuit of excellence. No challenge is too great, and forward momentum is what he knows. There is nothing that can get in his way.
Rather than accept the grim diagnosis, Baker and his mother Laquita Conway worked for the return of his functions. After three weeks in intensive care, Baker was transferred to a hospital medical center to begin rehabilitation. His treatment as an in-patient lasted for five months, and he continued therapy as an out-patient for seven. Just one year after his injury, the insurance company deemed Baker rehabilitated and released him from any further therapy. Though he had regained some movement of his arms and legs at that point, he was still highly impaired, unable to handle any of his personal needs and used an electric wheelchair.
Exercise is Medicine
Conway refused to give up hope and was determined to find another way to help Baker. A friend informed her about an exercise physiologist named Taylor-Kevin Isaacs, who was the professor of kinesiology at the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled at California State University Northridge. Isaacs was a professional soccer player who had shattered his ankle during a match. Fighting his way back to recovery, he discovered his true passion was in physical therapy. A strong believer that exercise is medicine, Isaacs embraced the opportunity to help Baker recover.
After a thorough physical and mental evaluation, Taylor designed a personal regimen of exercise and nutrition for Baker. They focused on the one and not the million. In 12 weeks, his flexibility improved dramatically, allowing him more normal range of motion.
Baker’s mobility significantly improved month after month, year after year. As he continued to train and exercise with Isaacs, Baker went from being tied to a walker, to relying on arm crutches, to using a basic four-point cane. Eventually, he was able to walk independently with a simple, single-point cane for support.
Since then, Baker has pushed himself beyond any reasonable comfort zone and consistently challenged his abilities. He rode a tandem bicycle across the country (twice!), won gold at the U.S. Paralympics Cycling National Championships, and even independently walked 20 miles across Death Valley. It is this walk across Death Valley that drives the film’s narrative.
Director Dominic Gill shared, “For as long as I’ve known Aaron I’ve been obsessed with watching him move. The deliberation and planning required for him to accomplish even the most basic of tasks has made me take stock of my own life and how I am living it. I knew I wanted this to be the basis for a film. Together, we decided to go out to Death Valley, where we could paint an amazing portrait of what it’s like to recover from quadriplegia.”
Closing the Gap Between What Insurance Thinks You Need and What You Really Need
In addition to all of the physical and mental challenges Baker pursues, he has channeled his energy toward something much greater than himself. His greatest pride comes from opening a state-of-the-art fitness facility that provides special needs individuals the health and wellness benefits of ongoing restorative exercise. A joint effort between Baker, his mother Conway, and Isaacs, the Center of Restorative Exercise (C.O.R.E.) is helping to bridge the gap between insurance-deemed physical therapy and independent fitness. Located in Northridge, CA, C.O.R.E. has distinguished itself as being the most inclusive and effective adaptive fitness facility in the nation.
“The insurance issue is a key component of our film,” said Gill. “We want people to know what can be possible if the injured have greater access to resources and a team that believes in their long-term recovery. We hope this documentary will affect change at a policy level.” Added Conway, “We would like to see Aaron’s opportunity for recovery become the rule instead of the exception. We strive to prove that anything is possible with dedication, commitment, focus, hard work and, most of all, love.”
For the nearly 1 in 50 people living with paralysis in the United States (source: Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation), Baker’s story can serve as an inspiration and give voice to their concerns. The message of the film is: while progress is often painful, ahead of you is an ever-ascending, ever-improving path…if you have the courage to take it.
Coming to My Senses: Support the Film
President Peter Wilderotter of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation shared, “Aaron Baker, through his extraordinary determination to overcome a devastating spinal cord injury, takes us on a journey and shares this journey with all of us in this powerful film. Aaron’s journey is bigger than one man’s challenge, it is an opportunity to create a movement to motivate the masses to get behind the Reeve Foundation’s mission to cure paralysis. Every movement has its moment. This is ours.”
To take the Coming To My Senses production to its next phase, Encompass Films has launched a Kickstarter campaign, which will run through the month of June. All funds raised will go toward the film’s remaining production, post-production and distribution efforts. Visit www.tomysenses.com to support the effort.
About the author:
Shaina Ostroff runs the PR firm Reach Public Relations and is proud to help share Aaron Baker’s story of struggle and strength. Visit www.reach-pr.com for more information.