People with neurological conditions gain strength, support from Enrich program

Karon Hantleman was told she would never walk again, but now she and others are are overcoming their previous limitations with the help of a new program.

'I'm going to keep going': Karon Hantleman sees a daily difference through custom exercise regimen

Karon Hantelman exercises at the Dr. Paul Schwann Centre at the University of Regina, with the help of volunteer Georgia Kaluznick, a student in the kinesiology department. (Janani Whitfield/CBC)

For Karon Hantelman, just being able to take steps without a cane is a tremendous victory after a spinal cord injury left her paralyzed roughly seven years ago.

All around her, people are jogging on the track at the University of Regina gym. But with each of Hantelman's slow and steady steps, one can see her steely resolve and determination. 

She can only remember standing up out of a chair to take the collar of her small dog, and then she had a fall and awoke in a hospital in Halifax, paralyzed from the neck down. 

"They said [I] would never walk but I guess I kept telling them, 'I'm walking out of here in my skinny jeans and my boots,'" she recalled with a smile. "I did go and walk out. Not maybe the way I wanted to — but I did."

Now Hantelman — along with other participants in the University of Regina's Enrich program — are overcoming their previous limitations through exercise.

A brain injury, a stroke, or a condition like Parkinson's or Multiple Sclerosis may rob a person of simple abilities many people take for granted — the ability to speak, to write or to stay balanced on two feet. 

The Enrich program, headed up by assistant professor Cameron Mang at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies, pairs student volunteers with clients who struggle with brain injuries or neurological conditions.

These volunteers help clients with a tailored exercise regimen designed to help them work past their particular stumbling blocks. 

One person may work on building up their arm or leg muscles, while another may practice tasks that would develop their hand strength and fine motor skills. The Enrich program is open to any person with a neurological condition, provided they are medically stable and cleared by a doctor to exercise.

Karon Hantelman exercises at the Dr. Paul Schwann Centre at the University of Regina. (Janani Whitfield/CBC)

The group meets twice a week at the Dr. Paul Schwann Centre. Since the program first began back in September, Hantelman can see the difference every day.

For months after her accident, she struggled with confidence as she took faltering steps or stopped to hold a wall, clutching her cane.

"I just felt like everyone was staring at me," she recalled. "[Before], I couldn't walk with the wind blowing on me, it would just plow me over. Now with the extra strength and doing all the exercises, it's gotten me that much stronger, and that much sturdier on my feet."

Student Georgia Kaluznick, who works alongside Hantelman, says watching the clients come along is a testament to what is possible with belief in oneself.

"A lot of the time when we are injured ... we can't do what we were doing prior to injury," she said, noting people internalize the thought that they can't be what they once were. 

"But if we push and if we strive to reach our new goals, a lot can happen. And Karon is a great example of that."

The program is also introducing the use of a neurotracker — described as a cognitive training device — to observe and monitor clients' symptoms over time. The neurotracker can help make note of how clients' cognitive skills like memory and spatial awareness are progressing.  

Tammie Gall suffered a stroke that affected her speech. She appreciates the help given to her by the Enrich program, offered at the University of Regina. (Janani Whitfield/CBC)

But it's also important to note that the program is also bringing together clients in a social setting, and giving some an opportunity to break out of social isolation. 

The bond between the volunteers and the clients is clear, with Kaluznick and others encouraging their clients along, and clients making the extra push to reach their expectations. 

Hantelman is proud that on a rowing machine she's progressed from being able to do 1,000 metres to now rowing 2,500 metres in just under 15 minutes. That's a feat that her CrossFit-instructing daughter also finds impressive.

And Hantelman notes that she still has the little dog that she had at the time of her accident seven years ago. Contrary to all expectations at that time, she still takes the dog out every day for a walk. 

"I'm going to keep going," she said. "Just lay it on me."