Running Inspires Hope and Healing for Spinal Cord Injury Survivor Wendy Garrett
May 2018 Issue
By age six, Wendy Garrett knew she wanted to be a gymnast—and she didn't let anything get in the way of achieving that dream. At 39, she still isn't letting anything slow her down, including the accident that left her without the use of her left leg. That's not surprising since Garrett's entire life has centered on being active.
"I was a gymnast until I was 23, which is old for a gymnast," she says. "And when I retired from gymnastics, I started coaching and I also began running." She was also an avid hiker, mountain biker, and surfer. But it was running that became her true love. Garrett says that by the time she completed her first 5K race, she was hooked on the sport. Soon, 5Ks escalated to half marathons, and eventually Garrett was running full marathons. Her first two marathons were Los Angeles and Austin.
In 2007, Garrett was given the opportunity to take her gymnastics-coaching career from her home in Oregon to Bermuda. Three years after the move, Garrett was riding her motorized scooter to work one Friday morning when a car pulled out in front of her and she was unable to stop.
"I hit the car and was trapped under my scooter," she recalls. "In the winter time you wear rain gear, and other than pain, I walked away from the accident…thinking I was going to be fine because my skin had been protected by the rain gear."
Garrett even went to work the day of the accident, but soon after arriving she realized she couldn't move her left foot. Still, she assumed this was a normal consequence of her accident and she went home for the weekend. By Saturday evening, Garrett says she was in pain all over her body and she went to the emergency room at a local hospital.
"They took an x-ray and said it was a sprained ankle, but having been in gymnastics for so many years I knew it was more than that," she says.
A Medical Mystery
That emergency room visit marked the beginning of a three-year journey for Garrett before she ultimately received a final diagnosis.
Initial progress toward a diagnosis came when the parent of one of Garrett's gymnastics students, a physician, referred her to a physical therapist. The accident had left Garrett without the ability to control her left leg and she was unable to stand. The physical therapist quickly realized that Garrett had poor circulation in her leg, which was causing her left foot to be constantly cold. Garrett was then sent to a neurologist on the island.
That neurological visit revealed that Garrett had a spinal cord injury, and that she needed to stop coaching gymnastics immediately to prevent further damage to her spine. It was then that Garrett made the decision to move home to Oregon to recover with the support of family and friends.
Once back home, Garrett sought treatment at Oregon Health and Science University, a research hospital. The physicians there labeled her condition a medical mystery, with no specific diagnosis about her spinal cord injury.
"The confusing part was that I had no movement from the knee down in my left leg, and no feeling, and I also had upper leg weakness," Garrett says.
Three years and 25 physicians later, Garrett was finally diagnosed with a spinal cord injury at L4, a spinal syrinx in her neck, and foot drop. While she had feeling in her left leg, she still lacked the ability to move it; her only solution was a walking cast that offered her some support in standing and walking.
"I still wasn't working, and my life was completely on hold," she says.
At that point, Garrett agreed to housesit in Utah for her aunt and uncle while they traveled. That decision proved to be a turning point for Garrett because it was in Utah that she met Jeffery Berdan, DO, who prescribed her first orthotic solution, an Allard ToeOFF brace.
With a proper diagnosis and orthotic solution, as well as the daily use of compression socks to keep circulation flowing to her leg, Garrett began grueling physical therapy that led to regaining most of the use of her upper left leg. She was subsequently prescribed another Allard AFO.
Even during the frustrating years while she lacked a diagnosis, Garrett says she made a point to stay as active as possible.
"I always thought I would get the use of my leg back and I wanted to be in shape," she says. "When I finally got an answer I was relieved, but I was also a little sad because I'd always hoped that it would be fixable."
Still, Garrett asked her physician if she would run again.
"He said, ‘Let's just try working on walking,'" she recalls.
But she was not deterred; the very first day she was fitted with her orthosis, she went for a run around the block.
"That was March 28, 2013," she says. "Eventually I got up to a mile and I just kept adding mileage."
In June 2013, Garrett ran a half marathon in Provo, Utah. In July of that year she moved back to Oregon to be near her sister who had been diagnosed with cancer. In Oregon, she resumed coaching gymnastics and she continued to train for marathons.
"In October 2013, I ran the Portland Marathon here in Oregon," she says.
And she didn't stop there. After Portland, Garrett trained for and ran the Boston Marathon in April 2014. During that training timeframe—in November 2013—she lost her sister.
"I almost gave up the marathon running when my sister died, but I kept going—and it was very therapeutic," she says.
After Boston, Garrett learned about the six Abbot World Marathon Majors. She'd need to run five more—in New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo—to complete that list. And she did. When Garrett completed the Tokyo Marathon on February 25, she secured her place in history as the first person with a spinal cord injury to complete all the World Marathon Majors on foot.
"I realize looking back that running has been a saving grace for me," she says.
Tara McMeekin is a writer and editor based in Parker, Colorado.