If it were just a matter of hard work, Eugene Sanders would be back to leading the Idaho City High School basketball team in scoring and rebounding.
That kid is so stinkin strong in his upper body, and so determined, said Dr. Rodde Cox, Sanders physician at Boise Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic. I love that about him.
A year ago, Sanders was paralyzed from the waist down in a snowboarding accident. Since last February, he has developed the physique of a gymnast, and he impresses friends with what he can do on the high bar in the school weight room.
He hasnt lost his touch at hoops, either. He beats almost anyone who challenges him shooting 3-pointers or playing a game of H-O-R-S-E.
He never misses a home basketball game.
Im the loudest fan, guaranteed. I always scream for my guys, he said.
The wheels of his sporty black-and-green wheelchair are almost never on the ground at the same time, said John McFarlane, a teacher at Idaho City High School and superintendent for the Basin School District.
Hes on two wheels all the time. If he figured out how to be on one, hed do that, McFarlane said.
Sanders life is much like it was before the accident, his mom said.
Hes out and about most weekends with his girlfriend and other friends, who didnt think twice about throwing him into Robie Creek last summer.
HOPING FOR NERVE REGENERATION
Sanders suffered catastrophic injuries when he and a friend were practicing flips off a snowboarding ramp near his familys remote home in the mountains of Boise County.
He lost control, flew 20 feet into the air, curled into a ball to protect his head and landed on his back on a rock. He shattered his T-12 vertebra, which is right where the spinal cord stops and the cell bodies for the nerves in the legs start.
It looked pretty dire at first, Cox said.
The diagnosis of a spinal cord injury meant it was highly unlikely the multisport athlete would ever re-gain function in his legs.
What was unknown, Cox said, was whether the injury was to the cell bodies for his nerves or just the nerves themselves outside the spinal cord.
When its the latter, its possible for new nerves to grow from the back to the legs.
Two years is the maximum time frame that nerves will regenerate, Cox said.
They grow about an inch a month.
WALKING SEEMS A LOT MORE POSSIBLE
Doctors needed two rods and eight screws to repair Sanders back, and he was hospitalized for six weeks.
Immediately after the surgery, he couldnt sit up. He couldnt get out of bed. He couldnt dress himself.
Hes definitely come a long way in a year, said Vicki Sanders, who is thrilled to see her son taking steps in a hospital pool.
Hes also taking steps on a modified treadmill, which has a harness to hold him up because his legs arent strong enough. Physical therapists lock his knees to be sure hes standing straight.
His mom said Sanders began moving his legs after about five weeks.
He does physical therapy two times a week in Boise, and he usually does one 90-minute session a week in a hospital pool. Physical therapist Susan Mayo has worked with him from the beginning.
Every week hed come in, hed be doing something new, Mayo said.
During a Friday afternoon session in late January, Mayo said Sanders could be her best patient.
Why? he asked, sounding surprised.
Because of your attitude, she said. You work hard every session.
While at the hospital, the teen became friends with three guys two paraplegics and one quadriplegic who had lost so much more function.
I feel extremely lucky and grateful to have what I have, just being able to have use of my arms, he said.
But he isnt leaving anything to chance. If theres a possibility that he can walk again on his own, he wants to do everything to make that happen.
I never thought I was ever going to get this far, he said. Ive had a couple days when I think, you know, I really will walk again.
He was able to walk in the pool before he gained the strength and ability to crawl on land. The places on his upper thighs where he has feeling arent expanding as much as they are intensifying, he said.
Cox said Sanders upper-body strength will make it significantly easier for him to walk with long leg braces. He believes the teen will be able to do that this year, possibly in time for his high school graduation.
It takes so much energy to walk with those types of braces. For a lot of people, its not very practical, Cox said.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Last year, friends arranged for Sanders to meet a Salmon woman who suffered waist-down paralysis after her 1,500-pound horse rolled on her at age 15.
Gabrielle Dance was told she wouldnt regain the ability to walk, and most discouraged her from aiming for that.
After four months at a Shriners hospital in California, she was able to walk out with knee-to-foot braces and a walker.
The 29-year-old still has partial paralysis in both legs but walks well enough without braces or a walker that people dont know what shes been through. She worked for years as a range tech for the Bureau of Land Management.
I did most of my work (on) my horse, said Dance, who now works for the U.S. Forest Services Visitor Information Center in Salmon.
No two spine injuries are exactly the same, so Dance simply offered Sanders encouragement as someone who has been there.
Whats really kind of cool is ... she said Im way ahead of the game, he said.
Sanders, who has a 3.65 GPA, was interested in studying marine biology before his accident. Now hes talking about studying biotechnology at Boise State University.
He wants to research stem cells, which hold great promise in helping him and others regain lost motor function.
Millions of peoples lives could be improved, he said.
Katy Moeller: 377-6413