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The Long Road Back

Had fate not stepped in, Taylor-Kevin Isaacs might still be playing professional soccer instead of helping severely injured people rebuild their bodies and regain control of their lives.

But Isaacs’ professional sports career ended seven years ago when he shattered his angle during a soccer match.  It took years for him to fight his way back to full recovery.  During that time, Isaacs discovered his true passion in physical therapy.

“I believe exercise is medicine,” said Isaacs, now an award-winning Clinical Exercise Physiologist/Kinesiologist at Cal State Northridge’s Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled.

Isaacs, 32, has had so much success at rehabilitating the disabled that he has gained international acclaim for his treatment of people with spinal cord injuries.  In the spring, he won the grand prize, from among thousands of entrants, in the MET-Rx World’s Best Personal Trainer Contest for the second year in a row.

A premed student as an undergraduate at UCLA, Isaacs came to CSUN in 1993 to earn his master’s degree in kinesiology.  He chose the Northridge university, Isaacs said, because “CSUN’s kinesiology department is the finest in the country.”

Fate again stepped in shortly after he began his graduate studies when, by accident, Isaacs met Sam Britten, founder and director of the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled.

“I was standing in the hallway looking into the center,” Isaacs said.  “What I saw was like a state-of-the-art health club, only the equipment had been adapted for the disabled.  I could feel the energy coming from the center.  It was electrically charged.”

Noticing Isaacs’ interest in the center, Britten approached Isaacs.  “Do you like helping people?” he asked.  Britten added, “This is a place where miracles occur.”

The former soccer player from South Africa immediately expressed interest in working at the center.  Britten hired him almost on the spot and the rest, as they say, is history.  Isaacs obtained his master’s degree and his certification as a Clinical Exercise Physiologist/Kinesiologist.  He now teaches a course in therapeutic exercise for special populations and works countless hours with clients at the center.

His first award from MET-Rx was for his work with Jesse Billauer, a young man who severed his spinal cord in a surfing accident, which left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down.  After working with Isaacs in a concentrated, individualized training program for 12 weeks, Billauer could transfer himself over in bed, play adapted games of pool, wheelchair tennis and baseball, and, with the help of friends, ride the waves on a surfboard again.

Isaacs earned his second MET-Rx award for his successful treatment of Aaron Baker, 22, a professional motocross racer who fractured three vertebrae during a practice run on May 26, 1999.  The accident left Baker paralyzed from the neck down.

“The echo of the fracture still haunts me,” Baker said.  “I can visualize every moment of the accident, my arms and legs flailing about in slow motion as I tumbled down the hill.  I came to rest on my right side at the bottom of the hill.

“I laid there with my left hand in front of my face trying desperately to move it, thinking to myself, ‘I just broke my neck.  I can’t feel my body.  This is bad.’”

Doctors at Los Robles Medical Center, where he was taken for emergency surgery, gave Baker a one in a million chance to ever walk again, said Laquita Conway, his mother who has devoted her life to her son’s rehabilitation since his accident.

After three weeks in intensive care at Los Robles, Baker was transferred to Northridge Hospital Medical Center to begin his rehabilitation.  He remained at that hospital until Oct. 9, 1999, when he was sent home to continue therapy as an outpatient.  By then, Baker had regained gradually some movement of his arms and legs.  First, feeling returned to a big toe, then to other parts of his body.  He could even walk a few steps with the assistance of a crutch.  But 20 months after the accident, Baker couldn’t handle any of his personal needs and hospital therapists said they could no longer help him.

“We were told the maximum had been done,” Conway said. “Aaron got so depressed.  It was his darkest time.”

Mother and son began to look elsewhere for programs that would help Baker.  Andrew Bray, a friend in a support group at Northridge Hospital, told them of the Center for Achievement for the Physically Disabled at CSUN.

Upon entering the center, Baker said, he felt his pulse quicken.  “I was in an environment I can best term as a ‘Gold’s Gym’ for the physically challenged.  My mind and body were craving adaptive exercise equipment and professional expertise to take me where I had potential of going – recovery on my own terms,” Baker wrote in an essay.

At the center, Conway and Baker were introduced to Isaacs and new hope for the future.

“When Aaron first came to me, he was slumped over like a dead man,” Isaacs said.  “He had chronic low back pain and he wasn’t eating.”

After a thorough physical and mental evaluation, Isaacs designed a personalized regimen of exercise and nutrition for Baker.  Within 12 weeks, Baker said his flexibility had improved dramatically, allowing him more normal range of motion.

“An example of this is having the ability now to reach the top of my head to brush my hair or to flip a hat backwards while it is on my head,” Baker said.

Now, he can feed, bathe and dress himself, walk unassisted for short distances and even drive a car.  And he continues his exercise four days a week with Isaacs with the hope of someday being completely independent once again.

“Taylor is not only my trainer, confidant and good friend, he is my teacher,” Baker said.  “We have a unique relationship, both professional athletes afflicted by injuries, possessing the passion for rehabilitation, in turn sharing the newfound knowledge gained through this process to others.  Taylor and I have everlasting friendship and a bond that will last for the rest of my life.  Together, we make magic.”

Isaacs believes anything is possible with an extraordinarily motivated person such as Baker.  He describes his methods as “highly individualized, full-time and caring.  The more you know about a person, the more you can help.”

Isaacs’ meticulously documented notes and photos of Baker’s progress are materials for a formal study he is doing on the long-term management of spinal cord injuries.  Isaacs hopes he can prove to insurance companies that long-term therapy does benefit victims of such injuries.

“Rehabilitation is a lifelong process,” Isaacs said.

“My career goal,” he added, “is to permanently alter the physiology of the body of individuals with diseases, disabilities and/or musculoskeletal injuries in an attempt to improve their function, independence, self-efficacy, and to prevent the secondary complications and degenerative changes that typically follow disability.”

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