Robert MacDonald steps forward, visibly straining, using two poles for support as a physiotherapist gives short, staccato commands.
“Good. Good. Don’t step too early with the left. Good. Kay. Up tall. Step. Good.”
It is early 2013, and MacDonald, captured in a video posted on his Facebook page, is in rehabilitation at Toronto’s Lyndhurst Centre, receiving treatment for a spinal cord injury that initially left him paralyzed from the waist down.
When MacDonald crosses the finish line of the Scotiabank half-marathon Sunday, it will be less than three years after his prospects of merely walking unsupported seemed remote and the idea of running roughly 21 kilometres seemed absurd.
But MacDonald is confident he’ll finish the race, and, to date, he has raised more than $15,000 for the Toronto Rehab Foundation, an organization he sees as instrumental in his recovery.
“This isn’t about me,” MacDonald said in an interview. “This is about the next me.”
MacDonald was in Mexico on a week-long vacation in December 2012 when his friend fell asleep in their shared room, leaving him locked out. Unable to rouse his friend, MacDonald decided to climb to the balcony of the third-floor room.
MacDonald says it had been hours since he’d had a drink and attributes the decision to climb the building to ego, not alcohol.
He was hanging from the balcony and reaching for a higher grip with his right hand when his left shoulder, which had plagued him for years, became dislocated.
MacDonald says he fell about 9 metres to the ground. He punctured a lung, broke several ribs and his scapula, and dislocated two vertebrae.
MacDonald was taken to a Mexican hospital. He left the country via air ambulance soon after, he says, arriving at Pearson International Airport roughly 24 hours after the accident. At St. Michael’s Hospital, Dr. Howard Ginsberg concluded that the dislocated vertebrae were pinching MacDonald’s spinal cord and needed to be corrected through surgery.
“The spinal cord is really high-price real estate,” Ginsberg said. “You take its boney protector and dislocate it and put chips of bone poking into it—that’s the problem.”
After spending much of December at St. Michael’s, MacDonald says he began in-patient treatment at the Lyndhurst Centre, a Toronto Rehab facility.
“He didn’t have a lot of movement in his legs,” said Josh Williams, the physiotherapist encouraging MacDonald in the video.
But MacDonald did have other things in his favour: He was young, and he was active before his injuries. And he was motivated, Williams recalled.
Still, that MacDonald walked out of Lyndhurst unassisted at the end of his in-patient treatment exceeded Williams’ expectations.
“He was going to get to where he was, but the speed with which he got there was really impressive and, I think, a testament … to Robert’s commitment to put in the work.”
A long-time competitive athlete, MacDonald “walked and half-jogged” a 10-kilometre route in 2013, as part of an organized run he had done with his family before.
“My walk quickly became a jog-walk the next year, and then I ran it fully this year,” MacDonald said.
Earlier this year, MacDonald began consistently training, beginning with five-kilometre jogs and gradually adding distance.
But MacDonald’s injuries are to his nervous system, making them more difficult to overcome than mere broken bones. Preparing for long-distance running poses particular challenges.
Darryl Tracy, MacDonald’s neuro-physiotherapist since October 2013, recalled that MacDonald was unable to complete simple physical tasks because “his spinal cord wasn’t really getting the messages through correctly.”
A person’s nervous system, Tracy explained, can develop “almost an endurance” to an activity. But just as someone speaking a new language for several hours might eventually tire and resort to hand gestures, MacDonald might also fall back on physical compensations during a lengthy run, such as dragging a leg.
MacDonald’s preparation has involved tempering his nervous system for the race, and doing things like walking backwards or sideways to give him the neurological “repertoire” to tackle the race, Tracy said.
As for Sunday, he says he’ll finish. Tracy agrees.
“He’ll get across that finish line,” he said.