Trainer Steven Ogilvie helps Ahmed Al-kubaisi do some exercises at the BORP Fitness Studio at the Ed Roberts Campus. Photo: Hanna Miller
Trainer Steven Ogilvie helps Ahmed Al-kubaisi do some exercises at the BORP Fitness Studio at the Ed Roberts Campus. Photo: Hanna Miller

By Hanna Miller

Berkeley’s SCI-FIT gym isn’t a conventional workout space. Along with the usual exercise balls and aerobic step boards, it boasts a five-part integrative exercise program, including a functional electric stimulation bike that activates nerves connecting the spinal cord to muscles in the body.

The specialized equipment and high-tech approach are designed to help people with spinal cord injuries or neurological disorders stay conditioned — and in some cases relearn movements like walking. The trainers aren’t issuing standard pep talks, either: They literally give clients physical support as they stand or move.

SCI stands for “spinal cord injury,” and FIT is short for “functional integrated therapy,” an intensive specialized program developed to restore lost function. Co-founder Dan Dumas opened the first SCI-FIT facility in Pleasanton in 2007. In July, a satellite campus opened in Berkeley at the Ed Roberts Campus at 3075 Adeline St., a center that brings together a number of disability programs accessible to transit riders near the BART’s Ashby station.

Dumas has lived the experience of those he now serves. In summer 2005, on his first day of a vacation in Hawaii, Dumas waded into the Pacific Ocean with a good friend just after noon. In the chest-high water, a powerful wave knocked Dumas off his feet and took him under. He struck his head on a hard surface, likely a rock, and broke his neck.

Instantly, Dumas was paralyzed and knocked unconscious, and he floated to the top of the water face down. His friend rolled Dumas over and quickly took to him to shore.

On the way to the hospital where he’d stay for 10 days, Dumas was in and out of consciousness. In Hawaii, Dumas had one surgery to stabilize his neck. Later, when he returned to the mainland for more surgeries, physicians told Dumas he’d never again move from the shoulders down — let alone walk.

Dan Dumas xxx after he injured his spine in Hawaii
Dan Dumas opened SCI-FIT  after he injured his spine in Hawaii in 2005. Photo:  SCI-FIT
Dan Dumas opened SCI-FIT  after he injured his spine in Hawaii in 2005. Photo:  SCI-FIT

But Dumas proved them wrong. After his hospitalization, he moved to Southern California for an intensive exercise-based program — one much like SCI-FIT. There, he was able to push forward, in part because he had an incomplete spinal cord injury that left some communication between his spinal cord and nerves. In San Diego, Dumas trained with physical rehabilitation specialist Jerry Rainey, who would later develop the five-part SCI-FIT program.

After six months, Dumas took his first steps. By 2007, he had returned north, and Rainey had moved to the Bay Area. Together with Dumas’ wife, Annabelle Constantin, they founded SCI-FIT. Today, Dumas is able to walk with crutches and perform daily tasks with his arms and hands like opening doors and answering phone calls.

Ten years after Dumas’ injury, he’s trying to help others make that journey. Every Tuesday and Thursday, two trainers load and unload equipment at the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. While the Pleasanton campus features an assortment of high-tech equipment, the smaller satellite location in Berkeley is in the early stages of what Dumas and his team plan to develop into a more robust facility.

Rainey’s program, devised after long observation of spinal cord rehabilitation, includes load-bearing activity, a movement that adds weight to the skeletal system; gait training, such as walking on a treadmill; functional or developmental exercises like crawling or kneeling; exercises pushing one’s range of motion; and mind-body connection.

Because each injured person is unique, Rainey said the combination of the five components of functional integrated therapy depends on the needs of the individual. “Our program is not a cookie cutter,” he said. For new clients, SCI-FIT offers a free initial one-hour session in Pleasanton. Then, clients seeking to continue rehabilitation at any of the sites are charged $100 per hour.

So far, seven Berkeley patients are receiving SCI-FIT care, led by two trainers. “We definitely challenge our clients everyday,” said trainer Erica Martin, who manages the Berkeley site.

As people with long-term or permanent injuries, her clients seek out one another for guidance, said Martin. “It’s definitely a family environment here…. Everyone helps one another out.”

Ahmed Al-kubaisi works out at the SCI-FIT center. Photo: Hanna Miller
Ahmed Al-kubaisi works out at the SCI-FIT center. Photo: Hanna Miller

One such client is Ahmed Al-kubaisi of San Leandro, a 24-year-old with a complete spinal cord injury from the waist down. In 2007, a bullet injured Al-kubaisi as he walked to a local market in Garma, Iraq, just outside of Fallujah. He lives in the Bay Area now receiving treatment and physical therapy for his injury.

Until the Berkeley SCI-FIT campus opened, Al-kubaisi went twice a week to Pleasanton. Now, Al-kubaisi goes once a week to the Berkeley satellite location, which he said is more practical for him due to transportation difficulties. The Ed Roberts Campus is convenient for people with disabilities because its entrance is in the Ashby BART station.

Dr. Lance Stone, chairman of rehabilitation medicine at Alameda Health Systems, heads the SCI-FIT medical advisory board. The program seeks to correct neurological and spinal cord injuries and assist in mental and emotional healing by keeping clients active, engaged and social, he said. “The idea is basically to prevent people from developing new problems that are associated with a sedentary lifestyle being in a wheelchair,” Stone said.

Dr. Scott Rome, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, said he referred a patient to SCI-FIT, and added that patient has significantly improved. Rome said the program may benefit patients who have an incomplete spinal cord injury, or injuries that leave some communication between the spinal cord and muscles. The ideal candidate, he said, is someone who is not progressing in a typical outpatient physical therapy, but who is “extremely motivated and has the resources to be able to pay for an extended out-of-pocket rehabilitation process.”

Hanna Miller is a first-year student in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she studies documentary filmmaking and health reporting. In 2014, Hanna walked across Mississippi and collected stories about her home, and that turned into her starting a non-profit art collective with her friends in Jackson, MS. Her interests include Russian language and culture, camping and bookbinding.

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