Making Recovery a Reality

As a Junior at Northeastern High school, Austin McNew was both an athlete and star student. He loved watching football, fishing, and still made time for his studies. He was excited to step onto the football field as a senior in the upcoming season.

In January 2016, life changed forever for the 17-year-old. He and his friends were sledding near his family’s home in Fountain City when his sled crashed. After the crash, he found he wasn’t able to get up and brush off the snow. He couldn’t move at all. 

Austin was transported to Reid Health’s emergency department where testing revealed the extent of his injury. The crash caused instant paralysis when two vertebrae in his cervical spine compressed and damaged his spinal cord. After being flown to IU Methodist in Indianapolis, he underwent emergency surgery to realign C4 and C5 and started on the long road to recovery. 

Due to the nature of his injury, his doctors weren’t sure about his long term prognosis. While Austin was eager to get back on the football field, his doctors couldn’t promise him he would ever walk again. 

His family and community rallied around him and encouraged him with wide-reaching social media campaigns, fundraising efforts, and prayers. More than 800 “#McNewStrong” t-shirts were sold, raising money to purchase a van to transport Austin and his wheelchair. 

Austin’s determination and optimism pushed him through intense physical therapy. Progress was slow, but six months after the accident, he had his first breakthrough- he realized he could wiggle his toes and thumbs. 

Austin’s parents are his perennial supporters and side-kicks. His mother Teresa and father Michael have been by his side every day of his journey. In the early days following their son’s injury, they read him the thousands of supportive messages Austin received. 

They also keep an eye out for new therapies that could help Austin’s recovery. Soon after the accident, his mother, a local teacher, learned about functional electrical stimulation (FES) technology. “After Austin’s injury, I just started looking and researching,” she remembers. “And after talking with other mothers, this just kept coming up: ‘FES,’ ‘FES.’” 

FES is a therapeutic technique that electrically stimulates nerves to cause muscle contractions. A physical therapist applies adhesive patches over a patient’s muscles, like quadriceps, and turns on the machine. Electrical pulses send messages to the muscles, telling them to contract like they would when pedaling a bike. This repetitive movement helps to condition and strengthen a paralyzed person’s muscles.

Teresa and Michael were eager to learn if it was something that could help their son. When they found that no local hospitals had an FES machine, they looked to Austin’s therapists at Reid Health for advice. 

“They mentioned the FES to our therapists, who came to me to see if there was anything Reid Foundation could do to help,” says Justin Burkhardt, the director of Reid Foundation. Thankfully, there was. “We worked with Restorative Therapies (an FES manufacturer) to bring this great technology to Reid Health.” 

The new equipment arrived to Reid Health about a year after Austin’s accident. Just in time for the holidays.

“We were very excited,” says Michael, “they even put a bow on it,” adds Teresa. 

After Reid Health therapists were trained on the new equipment, FES was incorporated into Austin’s and many other patients’ therapy sessions. 

Austin’s strength has increased rapidly since the FES was added to his routine. He and his therapy team diligently track his improvement. Austin recites the metrics that measure his progress and strength with the same excitement as he does his old football stats. In July 2017, he became strong enough to sit upright for a minute without support, something that hadn’t been possible before FES. By December, he was able to sit unassisted for more than 40 minutes.

FES is improving outcomes for many Reid Heath therapy patients thanks to generous contributions to Reid Foundation. “We’re so grateful,” says Justin. “The gifts we received made this therapy accessible for Austin and other individuals in our region.”

Reid Health’s new FES equipment is supported by hands-on advice from Restorative Therapies, who are on-call to help with patient therapy. “We’ve had Restorative Therapy in for clinic days… We schedule all our patients who use the FES and have their clinic expert help us problem-solve, troubleshoot, and try new things,” says Rick Johnson, the manager of Inpatient and ARU Rehabilitation Therapy Services. This adds up to improved and advanced care for every Reid Health patient who uses FES. 

Two years after his accident, Austin continues to be an inspiration to those around him. He’s currently a double major in psychology and political science at Indiana University East, and still finds the time for physical and occupational therapy three times a week. Every Friday, he and his therapists work on walking. When supported by a harness that helps lift his body weight, Austin is now able to take steps across the physical therapy room.  

His therapists say it’s hard to overstate how incredible this is for a quadriplegic person. And his entire support team, including mom, dad, therapists Rick and Darcey, and thousands of followers on Twitter, are all beaming with pride.