In late August of 2019, Mathew Szymanowski (Shim) was hit by a car while training, leaving him with a severe spinal cord injury. Last summer, three of his friends (Sam Horn, Nick Monette and Cole Glover) set out on a 500 km ride that they hoped would help him in his effort to learn to walk again.
Six months on, Shim’s progress is remarkable.
While charity rides are somewhat common, you rarely hear about what happens next. Few, if any, follow-up with concrete results like Shim’s Ride has. The trio raised over $75,000 dollars to help send Shim to Thailand for a developing treatment. The epidural stimulator is intended to help him regain the use of his arms and legs and other bodily functions.
The treatment is just the start. Back in Canada, Shim’s been putting in serious work. And, just as he did on a bike and in a boat, Shim’s determination and positive outlook have taken him further than many of us could have imagined. I checked in with my good friend Shim to find out how he’s progressing after Thailand.
Oliver Evans: How was Thailand?
Matthew “Shim” Szymanowski: I loved my experience in Thailand! The team that I worked with was amazing! They were experienced and knew how and when to push me. It was a lot of hard work, five hours of physio a day, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
Although Thailand is a Third World country, the medical industry there is sophisticated. The hospital is well equipped with experienced doctors and patients from around the world getting various treatments.
What was the hardest part of rehab?
The hardest part of rehab was getting started. Since I haven’t used my muscles in a while they weren’t strong. No matter how much effort I put in, sometimes they just wouldn’t budge. It did get easier as time went on. My stamina and strength got better from day to day. Seeing the improvements really motivated me to keep pushing myself.
What are you doing now?
To continue the progress, I have made efforts to create the same environment that I had in Thailand. While waiting for the equipment that I ordered to be delivered I continued with standard physio and extra exercises on the side.
How’s that going?
The physio is going great! My physio instructor has noticed a significant improvement. I am able to do more things independently such as transfers on my own, gaining greater mobility on flat surfaces, I can tolerate standing for a longer time, and an overall improvement in fitness and strength.
In addition, I feel healthier. The epidural stimulator improved my blood pressure, bowel and bladder function, and overall muscle tone. I would recommend anyone with a spinal cord injury to consider this treatment.
Were you surprised by anything? The success, the speed, the progress?
Going in I didn’t really know what to expect. Epidural stimulation seemed like the next step towards a cure for spinal cord injury. There are a lot of clinical trials going on but no approved treatment plan. The doctors in Thailand are pioneering this process alongside clinical trials.
Recently, Canadian and American universities have received the largest research grant in spinal cord injury history. $48 million has been put towards epidural stimulation research. I have been in contact with some of the researchers designing the studies. They are hoping for a clinical trial to start four years from now. Hopefully, this treatment gets approved in Canada and people won’t have to go overseas to get it!
Any other surgeries or procedures on the horizon?
Currently, I am on the lookout for clinical trials and new research. I am on the waiting list for a phase 2 clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. It is unknown whether it will pan out.
There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in spinal cord injury research. For example, I received a nerve transfer surgery for finger flexion, finger extension and tricep function. This procedure has recently been approved in Canada. So far it has increased the functionality of my fingers slightly. It takes roughly 2 years for the nerves to fully innervate the muscles. I still haven’t seen the full potential of the surgery since it was done nine months ago.
Where do you expect to be with recovery in a year?
It’s hard to say. Every spinal cord injury is different. Obviously, the goal is to get the most independence and functionality back. Right now I am focussing on physiotherapy and occupational therapy to maximize my potential.
Recently I applied to the engineering programs at Ryerson and York University. Participating in clinical trials and looking into research has sparked my interest in biomedical engineering. Hopefully, I can get into the program and have a career in spinal cord injury research. That is something that I can truly see myself being passionate about!
I heard a rumour about walking 6 hours a day. Is it true?
Recently I purchased the same walker I used in Thailand for therapy. There has been a learning curve getting the set-up right. The next step is getting a treadmill so that I only need one support person helping me instead of two. My goal is to walk for six hours a day, six days a week, for six months.
It is a protocol that is currently a phase 2 clinical trial. If anyone is interested, the study I’m referring to is a study headed by Dr. Wise Young from Rutgers University. The initial phase of the clinical trial has shown a lot of promise with some participants achieving independent walking again. In addition, the bone health, bowel and bladder health and muscle tone improved in all participants.
The way I see it is that I have nothing to lose dedicating my time to this and only potential benefits to gain!
It is impossible to justly describe the absolute relief and elation felt by myself, and I expect so many others, when we saw the video of the first time you started to move on two feet (and one walker). Nothing I’m capable of putting into words will tie this article together in a satisfying way.
All I can say, Shim, is well done. We are all so damn proud of you. Thank you for letting so many of us feel a part of this journey. Thank you for being so positive and tremendously inspiring throughout. Any of us who haven’t experienced an injury like yours could only strive to move through a comparable experience with such grace.
You’ve had (and always have had) such an impact on so many people. Whether you’re in a chair, lying in a bed, or back on your feet, we’ll never stop looking up to you.
After this article, people will continue to write to me to ask how you are. And I will continue to bug you about it, until we meet again. And at that point, I’m really hoping the two of us can be dancing together in my kitchen again. I’m so down!
Until then, good luck. And if anyone can walk six hours a day six days a week for six months, it’s you. Not sure why Dr. Wise Young went with 666, but we’ll trust him.
Love you. So much.