PBS spotlights local fitness therapy program

Documentary to air at 5:30 p.m. May 31

By: Jennie Miller | Southfield Sun | Published May 24, 2011


SOUTHFIELD — There was a time when Jasmine Buckwalter wished she had more hours in the day.

But in one instant, everything came to a screeching, terrifying halt. And now all she has is time.

Two years ago, the Detroit resident was juggling a handful. She was raising two teenagers, helping take care of her grandparents, and working two jobs.

But after a devastating accident, she needed others to take care of her. She was crossing the street at Michigan Avenue and Livernois one day and was struck by a car.

Her injuries were significant. Her sternum was fractured. Both arms and her left leg were broken. Her right leg needed to be amputated above the knee. She suffered a head injury. At the age of 30, her world was shattered.

Christopher Felton was 29 years old when he suffered a similar tragedy. Stopped at a red light on his motorcycle, the Macomb Township man and former special ops soldier was hit head-on by a car traveling 50 mph, and then Felton was hit from behind by another.

His jaw was shattered. His neck, back and skull were fractured. His left leg was crushed and was eventually amputated above the knee. In the six years since, he’s had so many surgeries he struggles keeping track. Twenty-seven, he thinks.

Both spent weeks in the hospital and a number of grueling months in physical therapy. Despite excellent support systems from family and friends, they still labor to find a place in their own lives again.

Felton was a father of a 3-year-old, and eight days after his accident, his daughter was born. The man who once had a passion for scuba diving, hang gliding and rock climbing was now an above-the-knee amputee.

Buckwalter found herself gaining weight from her immobility and depression. She needed to learn how to get out there again, how to push herself beyond her newfound limits, but she was afraid.

Fitness Therapy Unlimited, based in Southfield, was founded by Greg Kirk of Macomb Township. It was born six years ago out of his desire to help patients beyond their physical therapy training. He was an athletic trainer working with spinal cord injuries at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, and wanted to do more for his patients once they were done with therapy.

“A lot of these clients were getting discharged from PT, and a lot of them weren’t ready yet or had plateaued, or insurance had (lapsed),” Kirk said. “There was really no next step. So a lot of them weren’t completing their take-home programs, or they weren’t informed enough. All that progress that they’d made, it regressed, and it was like starting off at square one again. I kept seeing this happening. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, how are these people supposed to move forward?’”

Kirk focuses on conditioning the whole body and improving the overall health and wellness of an individual. Many patients have gained 20-50 pounds of extra weight following serious injuries, Kirk said, and have developed chronic back pain because of the weight.

“A lot of what we do is preventative therapy as well — like preventing the onset of diabetes,” he said. “We want to show people out there that not only does life go on after an accident, but you can be mobile. There are ways to burn calories in a wheelchair. There are ways to get the body moving.”

Buckwalter and Felton have both received invaluable assistance from Kirk, they said, mostly through aquatic therapy. Buckwalter, who trains at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, is now eyeing a kayaking competition.

“For me, it got me out there and showed me that life isn’t limited to being in the house,” she said. “I don’t know if they even know how much they helped me with just taking off my leg and putting on a swimsuit and getting into a pool. They helped me with some of the mental aspects, and definitely with the physical.”

She is also training for scuba diving certification.

“There are so many people that are paralyzed, that have different disabilities, that aren’t able to get out, wishing that they could get out,” Buckwalter said. “Fitness therapy opens doors for people to do it.”

Felton, who trains at the Warren Community Center, might also one day get back into the active hobbies he once loved.

“Maybe I’m jumping the gun, but I’m trying to push myself to get back into indoor rock climbing and scuba diving,” he said. “Everything has improved since I started working with them — even just my overall feeling and attitude. … I have high expectations of where I want to be after so much time. I’ve got two children, my wife and I have been married 12 years … and that’s what keeps me motivated.”

Fitness Therapy Unlimited will be featured in a PBS documentary titled “A Wider World,” airing in the metro Detroit area at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 31. Following the airing on PBS, the 15-minute documentary will be available to view on the YouTube channel “ftunlimited.”

For more information, visit www.ftunlimited.com or call (248) 327-3866.