NRN Spotlight: Journey Forward

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on July 14, 2017 # Research

For Denna Laing, New Year’s Eve 2015 rang in as a completely different life than she had known hours earlier. That night, the 24-year-old forward for the women’s National Hockey League team Boston Pride sustained a spinal cord injury after falling near the boards during the Outdoor Women’s Classic at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

Six months after her injury, she started an activity-based exercise program at Journey Forwards’ Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) Community Fitness and Wellness Facility in Canton, Mass.

Making Early Gains

“At first, I had very limited mobility,” said Laing who goes to Journey Forward five days a week for several hours a day. “But after just a couple months, I am definitely seeing improvements. My upper extremities are getting stronger; I’m gaining muscle tone in my arms and legs and I feel stronger in my core.”

She also attributes her improved balance and ability to hold up her body to the NRN’s Locomotor Training and NeuroMuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) activity-based interventions.

“I’ve been an athlete my whole life,” said Laing. “Going to the NRN gets me back to a space where I feel normal. The staff is so dedicated and motivated. They push you and encourage you to go as far as you can go to take the next step forward.”

Laing feels lucky to get this kind of therapy at an early stage in her recovery and to be making so many gains.

“Journey Forward is such a unique place. We are all going through some sort of spinal cord injury yet we are all excited to be there and work hard. Everyone is so positive, upbeat and encouraging,” said Laing. “There is such a wide range of people in the NRN program here, all trying to get better and be their best selves. It helps you come back every day and move forward together.”

Ready for the Future

Justin Graceffa views his time at Journey Forward differently. He has been living with quadriplegia for almost ten years from a 22-foot fall from a balcony at the age of 20. Always looking for new and different things to try, he started going to Journey Forward three years ago.

“Although I’m not necessarily going to make major gains, I can feel more changes in my body, tingling and vibrations, than I used to. I am gaining strength in both arms and truck stability that I attribute to my time at Journey Forward,” said Graceffa, “The staff pushes you more than other interventions do and this strength and conditioning is important to keep the abilities I do have in good working order.”

Graceffa has also noticed sitting, balancing and breathing improvements.

“I’m not hoping for a miracle cure, but I think there will be a viable treatment one day and I want to be part of that,” said Graceffa. “I want to keep my body in the best position possible for when that happens.”

One of Graceffa’s biggest challenges is fighting with insurance which will not cover his Journey Forward visits.

“Insurance doesn’t look at it as health and wellness, they just look at the bottom line and whether or not you are reaching certain benchmarks and criteria,” said Graceffa. “What they don’t understand is that it’s not just about gaining mobility and movement, it’s psychological as well. The NRN is my weekly exercise; it’s how I stay fit. It’s about keeping what I do have in the best condition which is something insurance doesn’t take into consideration.”

Like many, Graceffa holds an annual fundraiser to help pay for his therapy.

“I am committed to the NRN program. It is tough but I power through it,” said Graceffa. “It gives me a sense of accomplishment and the value I get reaches way beyond the physical. I think very highly of the program and I look forward to staying involved.”

Reaching Personal Goals

Katherine Barrett shares Graceffa’s passion for Journey Forward.

“My family and I fell in love with the place the first time we saw it,” said Barrett. She sustained a spinal cord injury in a 2013 skiing accident while studying abroad in Spain as a junior at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. When she arrived at Journey Forward several months after her injury, she was using a wheelchair and had very weak leg muscles.

“I really wanted to finish my senior year on time,” said Barrett. “The team at Journey Forward was very focused on my personal goals and pushed me to build my balance, strength and confidence to go from a wheelchair to a walker to forearm crutches. They could see the big picture of all the things that go into a person’s recovery.”

Katherine Barrett (far right)Young, healthy and active aside from her spinal cord injury, Barrett really likes the program’s personalized, holistic and creative approach.

“I’ve never left there feeling down or hopeless. I always leave feeling energized and that I’m making progress. They know where you are at and where you need to be both as a person and with your injury,” said Barrett. “It’s not just a workout. As part of the NRN, they are really on the cutting edge in terms of what they offer. I feel lucky to have a place to go every week where I’m going to get help reaching my goals.”

Journey Forward is one of the five NRN Community Fitness and Wellness facilities around the country offering an activity-based approach to fitness designed for people living with spinal cord injury and other physical disabilities. The Reeve Foundation is committed to the continued expansion of the NRN Community Fitness and Wellness program in order to offer people living with paralysis access to exercises that will help them be “fit for life.”

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.