Story and photos by Miriam Raftery; videos by Leon Thompson and Rob Constantine.
21, 2008 (San Diego's East County) — "When I first had my stroke, I couldn't speak or move my right side. I couldn't
walk," recalled Austin Junkin, 80, of Lemon Grove. "Now I can do anything. I
lift 100 pounds with ease," he said, demonstrating his physical prowess by
hoisting weights above his head inside the Challenge Center at Sunset Park
in La Mesa.
Challenge Center isn't any ordinary gym. The facility specializes in
helping severely disabled patients, including those with spinal cord and traumatic
brain injuries, attain dramatic improvements even after other physical therapy
programs have failed. View
"We heal people," said Bill Bodry, who founded Challenge Center in 1987 after
suffering a spinal chord injury from a botched surgical procedure and finding
no adequate facility for rehabilitation. "We see the miracles of physical
therapy. Our total focus is on the disabled. Others only see these
patients for 30 or 60 days," he noted, adding that many patients can only get
insurance to cover six to twelve weeks.
|Austin Junkin, 80, once partially paralyzed by a stroke,
now hoists 100
pounds with ease.
By contrast, licensed physical therapists at Challenge Center will stick with
traumatic brain injury patients for two or three years. "They are in
wheelchairs and head braces. The prognosis is that they will never walk,
talk or speak," said Bodry, whose facility has produced astonishing results. "The
most dramatic we've seen are people who were in comas for months. Families
were told to take them off life support."
He recalled the case of a patient named Michael, who suffered severe injuries
in a car accident that ripped a vehicle in half, killing others. "He
came out of a coma with a look of horror, opened his mouth, and everything
was garbled," Bodry said. "He was in a wheelchair and head brace. He
is now walking with a cane and speaks with no impediment. He's completely alert
and he can stand on a chair or bench with his hands in the air. It's
risk taking. We can push the envelope here...We have the known care, and what
is possible is applied here."
Asked how many patients have been injured at the Challenge Center during its
21-year history, Bodry replied, "None."
Traumatic brain injuries have become the signature injury of the Iraq War,
yet the U.S. military and the Veterans Affairs Department have not referred
assist wounded active duty military personnel or veterans.
|Rob Constantine works out at Challenge Center. A videographer,
he straps a monopod onto his wheelchair for his work, including a video
documenting results at the Challenge Center (see www.myrcvideo.com).
"I have room for 75 people," said Bodry, who has been in touch with the Wounded
Warrior Foundation and Semper Fi. "We're ready, willing and able. I
have $10,000 sitting in the bank in a restricted grant for active duty military
or recent veterans."
Asked why no active duty soldiers or wounded veterans have been referred by
the U.S. government to the Challenge Center, Bodry speculated that hesitation
is due to "the pride of the military."
Families can bring wounded vets or others to the facility, which does not
accept insurance but charges on a sliding fee scale. Low-income
patients with serious disabilities such as spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries,
multiple schlerosis, or muscular dystrophy may qualify for scholarship funds
provided by major donors including Grossmont Healthcare and Kaiser Permanente.
Rob Constantine, a San Diego-based videographer with cerebral palsy, has been
coming to the Challenge Center since 2003. "The help has been enormous,"
he said. "The older I get, the faster my muscles tighten up. I
had more falls and I hurt myself before coming here...The Challenge Center is
like an amazing center. It's like a health club, but it's also like the Cheers
Bar. You come in and everybody knows your name; it's a social experience--and
almost everyone here is disabled."
Constantine recently produced a video on the Challenge Center which can be
viewed at www.myrcvideo.com.
Another former client, Jeannie Booth Rex, lost a leg after a drunk driver
struck her and dragged her across a grocery store parking lot. Today,
she is an employee at the center.
Bodry, who is confined to a wheelchair, went to Nevada seeking help after
he realized he was growing weaker following his own injury. The result
was a "disaster," he recalled. "The people running the facility were
not professionals. People were injured in the program every day. The
worst I saw was a young man 16 years old, a quadriplegic. He got on a
range mat and started stretching himself, pushing down like an NFL player.
He broke his own femur...I will never forget that sound."
Bodry later went to Los Angeles and checked into a program in Arizona started
by the mother of a child with an injured spinal cord. "It was a
carbon copy of the other place," he recalled, adding that he came to a realization
that "to find anything beyond acute care, I'm going to have to start it."
He started a nonprofit organization and invited a doctor heading up rehabilitation
at Santa Monica Hospital to serve on the board. "He took me to a world
authority on physical medicine and rehabilitation," recalled Bodry, who opened
the first Challenge Center in El Cajon in 1987. In 2000, La Mesa Mayor
Art Madrid helped Bodry move his facility to the Sunset Park site at a very
Bodry has emerged as a passionate advocate for the disabled and the importance
of physical activity.
"Lack of physical activity is the tenth leading cause of death and disability
in the U.S., and the National Institute of Health (NIH) has no department of
physical activity," said Bodry, who has testified at the NIH, piquing the interests
of national leaders in healthcare.
In May, he will team up with the Old Mission Rotary Club to host a fiesta
aimed at raising funds to purchase all new equipment in the aging facility. "It
will put us on the map," he predicted, adding that doctors and therapists would
be more apt to refer patients to a facility with state-of-the-art gear.
Bodry's dream is to see the program he founded at the Challenge Center replicated
across the country. "That is my goal," he revealed, then concluded, "With
the new administration, I am hopeful."
For more information, visit www.challengecenter.org.