Sault Stryders
Running Club

On the road to recovery
Reported October 19, 2011 by Rachel Punch for The Sault Star
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

Saultite Stew Blake stops for a photo during a cycling trip in Austria and Italy this past June. Blake was diagnosed as a complete paraplegic in September following a cycling crash at Fort Creek, but has since started to regain movement.

Stew Blake was diagnosed a complete paraplegic in September, but the persevering triathlete has since got on a stationary cycling machine and pedaled a kilometre straight.

In a demonstration of his hard-working nature, the Sault resident has already tried to cut down his time.

Blake has made great strides in the last few weeks and has a goal not only to walk again, but also to make a return to triathlons.

"His work ethic is phenomenal. He is very dedicated and if he has a task, he is certainly going to work hard at getting it done," said his wife, Natalie Blake.

Stew finished second at the St. Joseph Island Olympic Distance Triathlon this year.

"He said that he is going to do the St. Joe's Island Triathlon next year, but maybe he'll go down to the sprint level, not the longer one," Natalie said with a laugh.

It may seem like a lofty expectation, but she said having a goal is important.

"You've got to stay positive," she said. "If it was just a case of hard work, Stew would be there next year. Hopefully the spinal cord agrees with what his brain wants to do ... He certainly can't wait to get on his bike again."

The Blakes received the devastating diagnosis in the days following Stew's cycling accident at Fort Creek. The crash happened when he was out for a casual ride with his son Graham on Sept. 3.

Natalie and the couple's daughter, Hayley, had left the Sault for Peterborough. Hayley was leaving home that day to start school at Trent University.

Stew was riding down a hill and there was a small depression that he didn't see, Natalie said.

"His wheel got caught in it and he went over the handle bars and landed kind of on his head," she explained.

Stew, who has been doing triathlons for about 24 years, always wore a helmet on his bicycle.

"That probably saved him from a brain injury," Natalie said.

The way he landed injured only his spinal cord.

"He didn't have a bruise on him. He just looked perfect," Natalie said. "It was just the way his neck was bent."

Graham, who started high school at Superior Heights this year, reacted calmly.

"My son was actually phenomenal. Stew told me he stayed calm and got help," Natalie said.

Stew was taken to Sault Area Hospital and flown out to Sudbury.

"The first three weeks when we were in Sudbury were pretty tough," Natalie said, adding they didn't have family or friends to support them there.

At first, Stew was put in a medically induced coma to stabilize his condition. He had a tracheotomy and was breathing on a ventilator.

Stew was able to return home to Sault Area Hospital about three weeks later, which marked a turning point in his recovery. He has since had the tracheotomy removed and his movement has gone from a twitch to a toe wiggle to pedaling in the last few weeks.

Part of the improvement has been the result of swelling going down, but Natalie also credits the hospital staff and community for helping Stew rally.

"I keep asking him how he is staying so strong through all of this, and he said it's just the support of everybody that he knows is rooting for him," Natalie said. "We can't thank everyone enough for all the well wishes and dropping off food and donations."

The Stew Blake Fund has been set up to help raise money for the family, who has lived in the Sault since 1990 when they moved here for Stew's job at the Ontario Forest Research Institute.

The support from the community has "really made this a whole lot easier for the whole family," said Natalie, a part-time registered practical nurse at Sault Area Hospital.

"I've just never been more proud to be from the Sault. It's just been amazing," she said. "You certainly can't get through something like this all on your own."

The Blakes realized the possibility that Stew may walk again a couple of weeks ago. Natalie put her hand on his leg and told him to try to twitch his thigh muscle and he could.

"That was huge. That meant something was happening," Natalie said. "Just from that first twitch, then we got a toe wiggle, then more and more. Everyday we are finding something else he can access."

It's difficult for doctors to determine how much a patient with a spinal cord injury will recover.

"Spinal cord injuries are still kind of a mystery because they can't see, at the level of the neurons, what has actually been damaged," Natalie said.

The swelling has gone down and the nerves themselves were not damaged beyond repair.

"The initial paralysis was probably just due to the swelling of the spinal cord," Natalie said.

Stew now has movement in most of his muscle groups, but he still has a long road of recovery ahead.

In addition to occupational therapists, physiotherapists and other hospital staff working with Stew, physiotherapist Andre Riopel of Back in Motion has provided extra help.

Riopel, a friend and fellow cyclist, brought in the bicycling machine for Stew.

"He is quite enjoying that, being a cyclist," Natalie said.

The first few times on the biking machine, Stew did ride a bit too hard.

"He likes hills. He likes to push himself," Natalie said.

His injury, however, prevents his legs from signaling his body to slow down.

"He was just hammering it and then he ended up having some leg cramps the next day," Natalie said.

The cramps haven't stopped him, however.

"He's back on the bike again today and just taking it a little bit more easy, which is kind of hard for Stew because he likes to go," she said on Monday.

His physical shape prior to the crash has helped in his recovery, Natalie said.

"If he had a heart issue or he was not in such phenomenal shape to begin with, he would have had a much harder time," Natalie said. "I think his overall fitness level was a huge bonus."

His upper body hasn't improved as quickly as his legs.

"Although he can engage muscles, it's not enough to actually produce a movement," Natalie said. "He can't lift his arm up or make a fist or anything.

"The good news is there is movement, but it will be months if not years of physiotherapy before he can actually hold a spoon or something like that," Natalie said.

Stew is hoping to get into a rehabilitation program in Hamilton. In the meantime, all the work he is doing in the Sault is assisting his recovery.

"He will be that much further ahead when he gets into rehab," Natalie said. "All of these improvements have certainly made us all feel a whole lot more positive about the end result, which we are really hoping is he walks again.

"It's entirely possible now."

For more on Stew's recovery, visit the Facebook group "Big Guy" Miracle.

Quick facts

Who: Stew Blake

Age: 48

Sport: Triathlon

Injury: Hit a depression while riding down hill in the Fort Creek area, throwing him off his bike and landing him on his head, resulting in paralysis

Future: Uncertain

How to help: A fund has been set up to help support the family of Stew Blake, who suffered a serious spinal cord injury after a bicycling crash at Fort Creek in September

To donate: Cheques made out to the Stew Blake Fund can be dropped of at the John Rhodes Community Centre pool desk