When I was a few years old, my parents took me to see a podiatrist (a foot doctor) named Dr. Jordan.
Dr. Jordan was calm, soothing, and methodical. He was also no ordinary foot doctor. He knew all about different disabilities and how one part of the body affected the rest. This was good news because I have cerebral palsy, and my parents were told by other doctors that I’d never walk.
Dr. Jordan’s office was in Long Island, New York, about an hour and a half drive from our home in the Bronx. This may seem like a long journey, but we were one of the lucky ones. Families traveled from all over the world to see Dr. Jordan. That’s how good he was.
I spent the first six years of my life crawling around on my knees.
I was a pretty fast crawler and didn’t mind getting around on my knees. (As long as I was in a room with carpet!) But knee-walking wasn’t the best long-term solution. It’s fine when you’re an agile kid, but the strain on knees can quickly take a toll.
My parents wanted me to learn how to walk, and I did too. Dr. Jordan was my best shot at making that happen.
As Dr. Jordan began treating me, he made a curious statement to my parents.
“Michael will learn how to walk before he learns how to stand.”
When my parents told me this story a few years later, I was puzzled. How can a person walk before he stands? It sounds like a joke. But it makes complete sense when you think about a baby.
When a baby takes her first step, it’s not like she’s standing around, and then starts walking. Someone holds her up, and then sends her on her way. She takes a few steps, and then either falls down or is caught by another person.
A baby gains momentum as they walk, but doesn’t have the strength to stand on their own for more than a few seconds.
At 7 years old, I was like a baby learning how to walk.
To help me along, Dr. Jordan and my parents made a plan. It incorporated several action steps.
1. I was given a pair of splints to support my feet.
They are called “splints” in New York but also go by the term braces or AFOs (ankle-foot orthosis). They create a frame around my foot and provide a layer of support. I put on my splits before putting on my shoes.
Over the years, I’ve worn different types of splits. Some were tall, and some were short. Sometimes we tried different shapes for different levels of support. I get fitted for a new pair every few years, even to this day.
As a kid, it was fun being fitted for new braces at Dr. Jordan’s office. They would wrap my feet in gooey plaster. I always liked that feeling! After it dried, they would cut the mold off my feet (that part was a little scary!). In a few weeks, I had a new pair of splints ready to wear.
2. I did physical therapy.
Outside of my time with Dr. Jordan, I saw a physical therapist a few times a week. I would go through exercises that weren’t fun but helped to strengthen my body.
One of the weirdest things I had to do for physical therapy is get placed in a device called a stander. A stander holds you in a standing position for a set amount of time. If that sounds like a torture device, well… that’s what it felt like to me! But standing helps build bone density and stretches the hamstrings. This exercise was important if I was going to walk.
I hated physical therapy as a kid. But looking back, I’m so glad my parents made me do it.
3. I practiced walking as often as possible.
This meant holding on to someone’s arm as I walked. I didn’t have the balance to walk on my own yet, but my legs were moving. They were strengthening. I just needed someone to lean on.
My parents would take me to a park with a track & field. We would walk around the track, and when we got to the end, a snack would be waiting for me. Food has always motivated me. Still does!
I can’t remember how much time passed between my first visit to Dr. Jordan, and when I took my first solo steps. Time is a blur when you’re a kid. I do know I was 7 years old, and I remember where it happened.
I was at my grandparents’ apartment. I still have the memory of wobbly walking down a hallway by myself. It must have only been a 5-yard trek, but I remember everyone being excited. I was walking on my own!
And Dr. Jordan was right about walking coming before standing. Once I got started walking, I literally couldn’t stop. I would run into walls or fall down. Standing was still a challenge because of my poor balance.
But I kept working at it. I kept doing physical therapy. And eventually, I grew strong enough to continue walking on my own. I learned how to stand too! (Interestingly, standing still tires me out faster than walking.)
As an adult, I need to continue strengthening my body to make sure I don’t lose the ability to walk. I lift weights, swim, and do martial arts. If I’m not moving forward, I’m going to decline. This is true of anyone, but it might happen to me at a faster rate. I always tell people I don’t want to stop moving, because I may not be able to start again. Entropy is real.
I’m grateful to my parents, Dr. Jordan, and my therapists for never giving up on me. They are the reason I was able to learn to walk at 7 years old.