Striving & Straining for Independence

Published 12:03 am Sunday, September 30, 2012

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Matthew Rymer keeps himself in a push-up position as his occupational therapist Naydza Muhammad encourages him to keep his form Monday afternoon during physical therapy at Natchez Regional Medical Center. Rymer who was paralyzed in a Jan. 1, 2010, car accident on Canal Street, has been working on building his back, arm and upper body muscles at least three times a week in physical therapy. He can now move his arms, but remains paralyzed from the waist down.

NATCHEZ — Looking into a mirror to catch a glimpse of his triceps during pull down exercises, Matthew Rymer doesn’t simply take his therapist’s word that he’s improving — he wants to see it for himself.

Matthew Rymer looks in a mirror to check his form as he works with occupational therapist Naydza Muhammad while doing triceps resistance pulls Monday afternoon during physical therapy at Natchez Regional Medical Center. Rymer said his goal is to live independently.

It’s nothing personal, that’s just what Rymer’s been doing since his days at Trinity Episcopal Day School when he played football and ran cross-country.

And as long as it’s helping him, his occupational therapist, Naydza Muhammad, said she’ll move the mirror around to every exercise station.

Email newsletter signup

“It helps him see what he’s doing right and wrong and gives him feedback on the exercises,” Muhammad said, giving an official rehabilitation answer before divulging the mirror’s main purpose. “It’s really more of a guy thing.

“It gets the testosterone working.”

But the mirror is just a facilitator of Rymer’s hard work and dedication to recover from an accident that changed his life.

Just a few hours into the year 2010, Rymer, who was 18 at the time, was the backseat passenger in a 2002 GMC pickup that topped the old railroad bed on North Canal Street before the driver lost control and slammed into a tree on Madison Street.

Four other Trinity students were injured, one other seriously.

Rymer doesn’t remember much about the accident and said afterward he immediately began focusing on the road ahead — recovery and rehabilitation.

Pushing toward tomorrow

For at least two hours every day, Rymer, now 21, is working on some kind of rehabilitation exercises.

The majority of his work is done at Natchez Regional Medical Center at least three times a week when he meets with Muhammad for his sessions.

The exercises rotate through a variety of muscle groups and abilities including triceps, chest and core strength — all of which center on one main goal.

“I’m trying to become independent, so I can go off to college next year,” Rymer said sporting a smile that is never too far away when he mentions the University of Southern Mississippi. “A lot of the stuff they said I wouldn’t be able to do, I can do now so I think I’ll be independent in a few years.”

The truck accident caused a spinal cord injury between Matthew’s fifth and sixth vertebrae, also known as a C5-C6 injury.

The break in his spine, originally believed complete, was labeled incomplete after the accident. Patients with incomplete spinal injuries may make significant recoveries.

Initially, Rymer was paralyzed from the neck down. Soon after returning home from a Jackson rehabilitation center, Rymer had feeling down to his mid chest and could move his arms.

Each part of his recovery along the way is something Rymer said he’s thoroughly enjoyed.

“After the accident I had to ask everyone to do things for me because I couldn’t do much,” Rymer said. “I hated it.”

Since then, he’s continued with both physical and occupational therapy to become as independent as possible.

Currently, Rymer can get himself in and out of bed, dress himself and roll his own wheelchair.

Exercises for his triceps and core strength are on the top of the list, Muhammad said, in order to reach complete independence.

Even little things like the use of his wrists, hands and fingers are slowly coming back to Rymer, who gets plenty of training for those through unconventional exercises.

“He plays all those video games so much it’s no surprise he’s getting feeling in his fingers,” Muhammad said laughing. “We don’t work on that as much in here because he does plenty of that at home.”

Each of the accomplishments — large or small — speak to the time and effort Rymer has put in to his rehabilitation, but also to his endless supply of motivation, Muhammad said.

“I’ve learned never to say never with Matthew,” Muhammad said laughing while sitting on a mat where Rymer once sat unable to sit up on his own. “When he first got here, I had to help him up, and now I’m throwing medicine balls at him.

“If anybody can get it done, it’s Matthew.”

But on the other side of positivity and motivation, Muhammad said she also has to be careful to not set goals that are unrealistic for Rymer to achieve.

“It’s unlikely that Matthew will ever walk again, and that’s something we talked about when he first got here,” Muhammad said. “Everyone reacts differently to news like that, but Matthew is very realistic.

“He’s hopeful, but realistic.”

And that hopeful attitude doesn’t stay at the hospital when he leaves. Rymer also rotates through different exercises at his house during the days he doesn’t visit the hospital.

Using what limited equipment he has at his house, Rymer often gets creative and takes to the Internet to find YouTube videos of people exercising with his same injury.

“You can find a lot of cool stuff on there,” Rymer said. “I’ll see something on there and then bring it to Mrs. Nayzda to try here at the hospital.”

The only difference with Rymer exercising at home and at the hospital is the absence of Muhammad watching over his every move.

“She’s pretty rough on me, but I need it,” Rymer said. “I’ve been playing sports since I was in the first grade, so I’ve always had coaches helping me and telling me what to do.

“It’s nothing different with her.”

Muhammad said Rymer’s athletic background definitely helps his motivation and work ethic, but disagreed with his kind comparison to the Trinity coaching staff.

“I always have to take into consideration that he’s an athlete, so he responds to the commands better than someone who might not have taken orders like that before,” Muhammad said. “He’s had these big coaches barking at him for years, so me yelling at him a little is nothing.”

Anyone walking into the rehabilitation center might think differently, though.

Since Rymer’s muscles aren’t as active, Muhammad often has to slap and rub his triceps and other muscles to wake them up and get blood flowing before exercises.

“I’m not abusing him, even though I occasionally get accused of that,” Muhammad said laughing. “I’m tough on him, but he can take it.”

The road ahead

Before the accident Rymer earned a scholarship to attend Copiah-Lincoln Community College Wesson and play for the football team.

Now Rymer is nearing his last semester at the Co-Lin Natchez campus.

He’s traded in a football for a calculator and has high hopes of attending USM next year to study computer engineering.

The move to Hattiesburg is one Rymer said won’t be easy, but is also necessary for him to feel independent.

“It’d be weird to move away from my friends and family, but I have some family in Hattiesburg, and I’d come back to visit a lot,” Rymer said. “But I still have a few more things to do before I can move.”

Those things include getting in and out of a car by himself, learning to drive and regaining enough strength to tackle any other obstacles on USM’s campus.

“I’m working on getting in and out of the car, but I really want to be able to drive,” Rymer said. “I need to be able to go up slopes and ramps better, and triceps are a big part of that.”

Rymer’s mom, Dorene Fos, said she’ll support whatever decision he makes — even if that means having her son almost 200 miles away.

“I’ll be lost without him, but I know it’s what he wants to do,” Fos said. “If I could go, I’d pack him up and go with him, but I can’t.

“I’m sure he’ll visit every weekend.”

Getting the full college experience, Rymer said, is all part of his goal to live an independent life just like any other 21-year-old student.

Making sure he gets those same experiences is something that led Muhammad to plan a surprise birthday party for Rymer at the hospital in May.

“I knew 21 was coming up for him, but he’s a very shy guy so I didn’t know if he’d go along with a party if I told him about it before,” Muhammad. “I made a few calls to some people at Trinity and around town, and it just grew from there.”

When the day final came, an array of Trinity classmates, former coaches, family and friends waited quietly in the hospital for Rymer’s arrival — who still says he didn’t know anything about the surprise.

“Everyone was acting weird that day,” Rymer said laughing. “They said, ‘We’re going to roll backwards into the kitchen’ and I thought that was really weird.

“I turned around and saw all the people — it was a really nice surprise.”

The large gathering even surprised Fos, but not necessarily because of the number of people — that’s something she’s used to.

“We have that many people at our house any given weekend,” Fos said laughing. “He’s always had a great group of friends who support him.”

The extra support group of friends is something Rymer said definitely keeps him positive.

“I like staying busy and always having friends over,” Rymer said. “They’ve supported me through everything and helped me through a lot.”

And while it wont be easy leaving his group of friends in Natchez, Rymer said he’ll always welcome them in Hattiesburg — some of which are already there waiting on him.

“I’ve got some friends up there now that I went to visit for my 21st birthday,” Rymer said. “It’ll be really different being away from Natchez, but I think I can handle it.”