Split Second

Three years ago, on July 4th, Mark Raymond Jr.’s life changed in an instant. 

At 27 years old, he had been celebrating the holiday with friends on a boat all afternoon in Lake Pontchartrain and periodically cooling off in the water— familiar territory to the New Orleans native and broadcast engineer who has a passion for athletics. But the tide in the lake had changed over the course of the day, and when he dove off the boat later, the water had gone down to three feet. He damaged the C-5 vertebrae by the base of his neck and nearly drowned as his lungs filled with brackish water.

When he woke up more than two weeks later, following a medically induced coma in the intensive care unit, he was 30 pounds lighter and learned that he’d lost his ability to walk. Newly quadriplegic, he was so weak, in fact, he could barely hold his head up, and on top of that he had a tracheotomy.

“I woke up and the first thing the doctors told me that I would never walk again. I was very new to all of this; it was a shocking moment in time before I could really begin to grieve,” he recalls.

While going through physical and occupational therapy he remembers feeling hopeless, frustrated and dissatisfied. The methods of his recovery focused more on restoring basic functionality, but not fitness. After most patients complete the required physical therapy, they’re often sent off on their own. They may be referred to gyms, but many people who’ve been in a life-altering scenario like Raymond’s don’t feel comfortable in that type of setting — people tend to stare. And many can end up back in the hospital again due to complications and infections.

Raymond is ambitious, and he likes to problem solve. He says of the therapy routines, “They weren’t challenging me enough. I felt like I could do more.”

He also hadn’t lost his swagger or his resourcefulness in the accident and while he was struggling mentally to accept it,  he didn’t give himself too much time to mope, as he began to independently research ways to get stronger. His goal is to walk again, and with progress being made in the field of stem cell research, that could potentially be a reality.

An Instagram search led him to the discovery of a gym in Sacramento, California called Spinal Cord Injury Functional Integrated Therapy, aka SCI-FIT, which focuses on comprehensive, post-traditional exercise-based therapy for people with life-altering injuries like his.

With his mother, Ronda — now his full-time caregiver — he set off across the country to participate in the program, which helped him restore strength and hope. (He paid out of pocket as it was not covered by insurance — another issue he wants to work on is getting insurance companies to cover more treatments for these costly expenses.)

During his workouts at the facility, he began to regain confidence along with his physical strength, and his sense of hopelessness vanished.

“I had better trunk control, more strength in my abs, I could crawl a lot better than I could when I left; I could hold a wine glass steady,” he says. “It was the most uplifting environment I’d been in. It was a bunch of people like me, pushing themselves to get better.”

According to a Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation study in 2013, up to 5.4 million people live with paralysis.The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS)  estimates that around 11,000 spinal cord injuries of this nature occur in the United States every year — falls, gunshot wounds and vehicle accidents are among the most common ways that they occur..

At SCI-FIT, Raymond realized that Louisiana was severely lacking in resources and facilities that cater to those living with paralysis. There are approximately 30 facilities similar to SCI-FIT, around the country— but not one here. He’s going to change that, hopefully by the end of the year. His positive experience at the facility, surrounded by people who understood him, made him want to make life better for people in these conditions. He notes that they live with more than just a physical limitation —  mental health issues including depression can manifest (Raymond says he was battling some suicidal thoughts early on during recovery), marginalization from others, higher rates of poverty and lack of employment often accompany the conditions — roughly 28 percent of families with a member who’s living with paralysis are at federal poverty level or lower.

To help this population out, he formed The Split Second Foundation (splitsecondfoundation.org). The name serves to remind people that life can change quickly, and it operates with a concept of “transforming hope into action.” The Split Second Foundation seeks to advance treatments for spinal cord injury, fund research and advocate for more progressive therapies. The organization will also partner with other health organizations, instructors, medical professionals and trainers.

With The Split Second Foundation, Raymond also hopes to establish fitness facilities for people with spinal cord injuries, amputations and paralysis, as well as form a community. “People with disabilities get marginalized,” he says. “It’s harder to find a job; it’s harder to find relationships. Having professionals with training [who know] tragedy and trauma would change so many things.” Details are still being finalized as the organization continues to raise funds, but his goal is to open the first fitness facility in New Orleans by the end of the year with plans to expand around the state and eventually, go national.

It could raise challenges, but Raymond also hopes once it’s implemented, that insurance companies will cover clients’ costs.

He reasons that if people living with these injuries and paralysis are able to get physically and mentally strong, it will actually save the insurance companies money in the long run, because if these individuals are as healthy as possible, their condition could help them cut down trips to the emergency room, for example.

He was also appointed by New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell to serve on the board of commissioners for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA). “We’ve made the city more accessible,” he says, with the installation of more yellow bumpers, ramps and sound devices on lights to help people cross the street.

“I am the new face of disability. I’m tackling a lot of advocacy and policies. Trying to provide better resources. Progress drives the hope,” he says.

The facility, he says, is intended to be a “progress-driven space. People don’t want to feel like they are shackled in their condition. We want to expand. I want to grow.”

Everybody knows someone who has suffered from paralysis, he continues. “It’s your friends, family, neighbors. This is our community; we are a part of your community. The broader goal is to build this community. We are here for it; we get it; we have solutions. Let’s figure this out together.”

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