In many ways, the day begins for Erica Coulston, 34, as it does for most women her age.
She washes her face, applies her makeup and brushes her hair.
She eats breakfast and heads off to her job in Southfield.
At work, she’s either behind the computer or out and about, working with her clients.
What’s different about those tasks is that doctors said she’d never be able to do them.
Just over 10 years ago Coulston was in a severe car accident near her Farmington Hills home. It left her with quadriplegia and what was supposed to be a life sentence of immobility.
“I ended up with a c6/c7 spinal cord injury which left me paralyzed,” she said, explaining that she lost function and sensation in both arms, her hands did not work at all and she couldn’t feel anything in her body from her chest down.
With injuries that severe, medical professionals typically give estimates of up to a 3 percent chance of regaining any function, Coulston explained.
“They didn’t even give me the 3 percent, though. It was no percent,” she said. “If you don’t make significant gains in the first year, you are kind of written off in terms of regaining function. Then, the care focuses on how to move on with your life. You do have to learn how to live, but I think if there’s progress that can be made in one area, then there’s more gains that can be made. If I have muscles start working in one area, then why can’t that happen in my legs?”
When the bleak outlook from medical professionals left her feeling like she was losing more than physical function, she, her husband and her parents opened up a rehabilitative center for others with spinal cord injuries that would focus on overcoming paralysis.
“We just felt like there was more that could be done in terms of the outcomes for people with spinal cord injuries,” she said.
Walk the Line to SCI Recovery started out in Ferndale in 2007 and grew into a state-of-the-art facility in Southfield in 2009. With a staff of both licensed and unlicensed physical therapists, the center offers an unconventional therapy regimen for clients and a renewed sense of hope, Coulston said.
“What we do here is different, and of course, how we are doing it is different. It’s run by a person with a spinal cord injury, and so we believe what we do here is possible. That sounds small, but it’s a big deal.”
Walk the Line has about 35 regular clients and a staff of 20, and clients come from around the state and even the nation. Coulston said the facility is more like a very social gym than a medical office, with bright lights, upbeat music and a crowd cheering patients on. And anyone is welcome, despite how pessimistic their diagnosis may have been.
At Walk the Line you can find Coulston and others defying the odds of their injuries and moving parts of their body they never thought they would again.
“It really has provided the community of individuals with spinal cord injuries a place of motivation, friendship and idea sharing, and it’s been really helpful to keep the journey going,” Coulston said. “It shows there is a community of us, and we are all in this together.”
Brad Erlandson, 54, from Clarkston, comes twice a week. In April 2002 his vehicle was hit head-on by a drunken driver in Lake Orion, and that car accident left him with a t8 spinal cord injury. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
“I know that many in the medical field believe that once you’re paralyzed, end of story, here’s your wheelchair,” he said. “Erica has taken a different approach to it — that you can get better through exercise and adapted training.”
Erlandson said he believed from day one that he would walk again, despite what the doctors told him. It took him years of traditional treatment before he found Walk the Line’s program, which he said “goes above and beyond anything that’s out there.”
What was even more surprising than finding such a program for Erlandson was that he realized he knew Coulston when they were younger. He said their parents were neighbors, but it wasn’t until years after both of their accidents, which happened coincidentally a few months apart, that they were reunited by the same determination to one day walk again.
“What are the odds that we would be reunited as fellow travelers down the road to overcoming paralysis?” Erlandson said.
“Erica, she is a warrior. Her injuries are really more extreme than mine, and I’ve seen her progress through the years. In fact, the last time I saw her, she was up and walking, in the pacer, her posture was straight and she seemed 100-percent better than before,” he said.
Erlandson said his own treatment at Walk the Line has him making a lot of progress by stretching, working on the muscles in his back and core, and also standing with assistance. Thanks to a treatment that allows waves of electricity to be sent through his legs, he is also able to take steps.
“For people in wheelchairs, it doesn’t get any better than this,” he said, adding that he still looks forward to the day he freely walks again. “I really look at Erica as a fellow comrade in this battle, and she has the tenacity, spirit and the drive. She has concern not only for herself, but for others. She shows all of us that we are in this together.”
Coulston was recently given the Spirit of Life Award by the Danny’s Miracle Angel Network Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with physical and mental disabilities. D-MAN’s Hollywood Night and Awards Celebration in Detroit honored Coulston for her resilience in the field.
“Determination ... this is the word that best describes Erica Coulston,” Ziad Kassab, chairman of the D-MAN Foundation, said in an email.
Coulston said she’s definitely made significant steps in her own recovery, though it’s been a long, difficult battle.
She was hospitalized for three months after the accident before she decided she wouldn’t accept what doctors told her the rest of her life would be like.
“To be honest, I was devastated. It was really difficult to deal with,” she remembers. “At some point I realized if I was going to recover, and I wanted to, I was going to have to figure it out and be able to get past the negative feelings I was going through.”
She believes Walk the Line was her way to do that.
“We have found a way to help each other get through this, and I think that has been the most meaningful contribution I’ve added and I’ve also received,” she explained.
Coulston has regained a majority of her arm function, her hand function has returned substantially, and she’s regained some sensation. She’s also gained function in her abdominal muscles, back muscles and some in her legs.
Though the progress never comes quickly, she’s also learned to appreciate small victories, like bowel and bladder control.
“Over the course of my injury, my goals have changed and evolved. My goal has always been to regain function as I previously had, or at least in a manner where it wouldn’t be obvious to anyone else, but along the way, there are other things that seem valuable that you don’t realize when you first experience the injury,” she said.
As to whether it truly is possible for paralyzed individuals to regain the body functions they’ve lost, she said “I don’t know what the final answer is. But I believe we deserve a chance to try.”