Four days a week, Jablonski works out at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley. As part of a program called ABLE, specialists suspend him in a harness and help him move his legs in a walking motion. They help him row bike-like pedals with his arms.
They talk sports and joke around. He teases them back.
“Gray-on-gray: Fashion faux pas!” he playfully scolded one man wearing slightly different shades of shorts and T-shirt.
“It’s loose and we’re having fun,” Jablonski said later. “But we all know why I’m there.”
He is still paralyzed from the chest down, able to move his arms through his shoulders. Through the therapy, he has gained more control of his 6-foot 1-inch frame — 3 inches taller than when he was injured. He has learned to balance and move his core. He has experienced moments of feeling and ability to move a foot or a toe, he said.
The exercises help him maintain muscle tone so he’s ready for a medical breakthrough someday.
The Jablonskis have turned a fund set up for Jack into a foundation, raising nearly $100,000 to help others get the same therapy that Jack is getting, and for spinal cord research.
So far, $30,000 has gone to a clinical study at the University of Louisville. There, researchers applied epidural electrical stimulation to four men with complete spinal cord injuries, giving them some ability to move their hips, knees, ankles and toes, and to stand. They made gains in bowel, bladder and sexual function.
Jack has put his name on the list to be part of the study. His family is holding out hope that someday study leaders will call. But Jack has lots of other goals in the meantime. “Obviously to be on your feet is number one, but I understand that there’s plenty of things I’ve got to do to be able to be in that position,” he said. “If I never end up succeeding that goal, life still isn’t a failure.”
A dozen guests shuffled into Jablonski’s house on a recent evening. Jack’s parents, Mike and Leslie Jablonski, joke that they might as well have a revolving front door. Since Jack’s accident, the house has been bustling with friends offering support.
For Jack to leave it all behind and head off to college on his own will be scary, they say.
The California climate is part of the reason he’s going so far. With his injury, his body doesn’t regulate extreme temperature the way able bodies do, they explained. Minnesota winters are extra difficult.
The school, in the heart of Los Angeles, has welcomed many students with paralysis; Jack has applied for a scholarship that other disabled athletes there have received. He’s scheduled to begin classes in the spring semester, January of 2015.
One of Jack’s parents will likely stay in Los Angeles for a while, until he gets settled into a routine. “The letting go part is scary,” Leslie Jablonski said. “It’s overwhelming. … There’s just so much of the unknown.”
In high school, Jack had a buddy in each class help him take notes and pack up his books. He took tests verbally.
He doesn’t have any close friends in California. They will need to find new doctors, new caretakers, new medical equipment, new methods for doing homework.