‘Walking With Anthony’ and the Long Road to Recovery

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Anthony Purcell and his mother, Micki. Photo by Sara Hall

It only takes a split second for a life altering spinal cord injury to occur.

Anthony Purcell, 24, of Newport Beach, knows that all too well.

After diving into the ocean in Florida in 2010 and hitting a sand bar, that’s all the time it took for him to fracture his C5 and C6 vertebrae.

It didn’t take his mother, Micki, much longer to realize that they had no idea where to turn or what to do next.

He was in ICU for five weeks and rehab for less than 30 days and then the Purcell family was “thrown to the curb,” she said.

“Literally, we left that hospital not knowing where to go, what to do, what resources [were out there], what our next move would be,” Micki Purcell said.

After some research they found Project Walk in Carlsbad and they found out where to get supplies, equipment and a wheelchair, as well as other resources.

The Purcell family fortunately had the money to get Anthony into regular sessions of rehab, Micki Purcell said, but she felt compelled to do something for the families that did not have the financial means to get the care and help they need.

“It’s very expensive,” she said, estimating that it costs, at the very least, $100,000 per year for proper care. “So Anthony and I said, ‘Let’s help these people.’”

So the Newport Beach mother and son duo started Walking With Anthony, a non-profit organization dedication to helping spinal cord victims get the rehab they need but can’t afford.

The organization is now sponsoring four people to get the help they need as well as paying for some regular living costs. Each person that they’ve helped has shown tremendous progress, she said.

Even if they don’t walk again, both Purcells agreed, they get healthier, stronger, more independent, better circulation, longer life expectancy, and more.

Ideally, they would like to help out another 20 people in the next year, but they can’t afford to help everybody at this point.

The organization gets private donations and holds fundraisers, but Purcell would like to approach some of the big corporations for sponsorships.

“My goal is to go after corporate America, go after people to write the big checks to help these people,” she said. “I need money. I need to help these people.”

A lot of the big companies are interested in funding research, Anthony Purcell said, but their foundation is about helping with the “right away” when “boom, something happens and they’re sitting there in a hospital bed and they need someone to help now.”

“We’re here right now. We’re like 911,” for people with spinal cord injuries, he continued.

There are so many people out there who desperately need the help, Micki Purcell said.

“We get emails every day crying out, ‘Help! Help! Help!’” she said. “People are begging for help.”

Thee are a lot of people that need a lot of help, she added.

“You basically have to relearn everything,” Anthony Purcell said. “My lungs collapsed 17 times, so the first thing that I had to relearn to do was breathe.”

And it’s extremely important to be in the right place mentally, he added.

“When you first get hurt, your mental is so (screwed) up… It’s so bad… Your whole outlook on things (changes drastically),” he said. “Once you start progressing mentally, then things come back into place.”

And talk about progress, Anthony is much stronger than he was two years ago and is well on his way to one day walking again.

Although, it’s about more than just being able to walk again, he said, it’s more important to regain his independence.

He’s made incredible progress in that department too.

He just got a car and his license, and is looking forward to driving again, he said. He also recently started working full-time, is traveling again, and has pumped up his social life.

“I don’t really look at the big goals, I concentrate on the smaller goals,” he said. “It’s not the end result it’s the journey… It’s how you make that progress.”

The organization also helps SCI victims in other ways. They are currently working with the Dr. Oswald Steward at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center.

“(He) has a huge potential cure for paralysis,” Micki Purcell said. “It’s amazing.”

He needs $1.5 million to get through the research project and to take it to the next level, clinical trials, she said.

“(Steward) has fundamentally changed the history of curing paralysis from spinal cord injury,” in collaboration with Harvard University’s Associate Professor of Neurology Zhigang He, a Walking With Anthony press release from earlier this year stated. “Through a revolutionary discovery involving the PTEN gene, researchers have regenerated nerves in the damaged spinal cord of mice responsible for movement and sensation in the body.”

Steward and He believe that mice results can be duplicated on the human body, according to the statement.

All of their fundraising, research support and financial sponsorship of individuals are all part of one ultimate goal: Help as many people as possible with spinal cord injuries to get the rehab they need and get better.

“I’m not going to stop…As long as I can bring in the money, I’m going to maintain the people we’re helping, as long as they’re progressing and as long as they’re working hard,” Micki Purcell said. “We’re going to be a charity that helps many, many people.”

For more information, visit walkingwithanthony.org.

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  1. Have followed Anthony’s progress as his story so closely relates to my daughter’s boyfriend who also dove into the ocean and had his life change in an instant. You don’t know until you have seen it up close how strong patients with SCI have to be. Anthony’s story has given us hope and information that hopefully someday our Keith and Anthony will recover from their paralysis. For now, I pray every day that Keith can regain his independence. No man or woman wants to be taken care of every day. It is so expensive to get the proper vehicle or equipment. What Anthony’s foundation does is amazing. Keep it up.

  2. My brother’s brother-in-law was just in a bad car accident 2 weeks ago, air-lifted to Univerisity Hospitals in Iowa City (btw they do miracles at that hospital!!!) They operated on him with 3 teams of doctors, having a broken back that was pushing up against his spine, thus bruising it and a multitude of other issues. Gave him 10% chance of walking again. They fixed him all up and started excercises, then 10 days later sent to rehab in Springfield, ILL. He has 2 OT & 2 PT daily and is working so hard at it, he actually stood on his own 2 feet a few days ago! In a split second life can change, it’s getting the correct help that is so important. He is a very lucky guy with a huge support system and a huge positive attitude, which is key to recovery.