Physical Therapist Helps Spinal Cord Injury Patients Move Forward

In November 2012 Jeremy Wells was riding his motorcycle when he was hit by a car. His injuries left him with limited mobility, and he was unable to participate in the activities that were once part of his life.
“I can’t jog, I can’t run, I can’t do a lot of the things that I used to enjoy doing,” Wells says in a video on the Kennedy Krieger Institute website.
But when Erin Michael ’05 introduced Wells to hand cycling, he found it both physically challenging and enjoyable. Hand cycles—three-wheeled vehicles powered with the arms instead of the legs—allow people with physical disabilities to compete in traditional running events.
“I had never seen or heard of hand cycling until the day Erin told me about it,” he says in the video. “It feels good to be going so fast and let your mind clear.”
Michael graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in physical therapy. Shortly thereafter, she started her career at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, rehabilitating patients with spinal cord injuries. While running with her colleagues in the Baltimore Running Festival in 2011, Michael noticed how few hand cyclists were competing.
“We started chatting about how it would be really great for our patients to participate, and we asked ourselves why we hadn’t encouraged some of them to do that,” she says. “There are people cheering for you; you’re all at the starting line together getting pumped up and excited.”
Michael became the co-creator of Team Kennedy Krieger, a charity team named after the institute that raises awareness about disability and encourages patients to get back into fitness. The team was established in time to enter its first race in 2012. Michael says that she received an incredible amount of support from Kennedy Krieger staff, patients, and family members and the Baltimore community as well.
The team raised over $97,000 dollars in its first year and was able to purchase six new hand cycles, which can cost $5,000 to $10,000 apiece.
“It’s not something our patients can afford to buy on a whim, hoping that they like cycling. So one of the things that we’re doing is providing loaner equipment, so they can try it and see if it’s something they would enjoy. We teach them that there are options for getting back into athletics,” Michael says.
Growing the team is Michael’s biggest goal. This year there were 24 patients among the 283 racers (walkers, runners, and hand cyclists) on Team Kennedy Krieger, up from last year’s seven patients among 207 racers. Michael said she hopes to support the patients in their goals and expand into other adaptive sports for patients to try.
“Being a part of Team Kennedy Krieger is a really great thing for me,” Wells says. “It feels great to be a part of a group of people who are experiencing the same things I’m going through. When I’m on the bike, and I’m 10 miles in, it’s just a lot of physical drive and a lot of fight. I like saying I ran 26.2 miles with my arms.”
Michael said she hopes that the team will encourage others to fall in love with racing—and to walk, run, or cycle farther than they thought they could.
“Our patients inspire all of us to do things we didn’t think were possible,” she says. “They teach us that obstacles can be overcome.”