‘Brady Bunch’ star aids group helping people walk again

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/04/26/brady-bunch-star-aids-group-helping-people-walk-again/

NORWOOD – One moment can change your life forever. After diving off a boat on a lake in June 2000 to join some friends, Dan Cummings discovered that he couldn’t move his legs. The 19-year-old had broken his neck.

After being airlifted to the Boston Medical Center and spending three weeks on life support, Cummings was told by doctors that he would never walk or be able to live independently again.

But the athletic teenager from Boston’s Hyde Park wasn’t deterred from striving to regain his mobility. He set an ambitious goal: He would walk again within two years.

“That day came and went, and I was still in the chair,” Cummings, now 35, said in an interview Monday. “But instead of getting sad and depressed, I looked at where I was when I broke my neck and I thought, ‘Gee, I’ve made a lot of progress.’”

While at first his health insurer covered three 45-minute physical therapy sessions each week, he didn’t feel it was enough, and climbed onto a special cycling machine, one that uses a therapeutic technique called functional electrical stimulation, at the Quincy YMCA on off days. At home, he would also spend several hours a day in a standing frame to hold himself upright.

“I was doing as much as I could on my own but I felt like I needed more. I felt like my physical therapists were teaching me how to live in a wheelchair,” he said. “My insurance company started cutting me off.”

So he took it day-by-day, and gave himself annual assessments and set new goals each year. In January 2007, Cummings took his first steps without any assistance for the first time since his accident, a feat doctors once considered impossible.

“It felt like I was floating. It felt like I was walking on air,” he said.

Apart from his own persistence, fortitude and optimism, Cummings credits a program called Project Walk near San Diego with helping him regain the use of his legs. His move across the country was no simple matter, either, as he had to learn to live independently so he could participate in the program. While the effort paid off, it left Cummings a bit frustrated.

“I couldn’t understand how coming from Boston, Massachusetts, the capital of the medical field – you know, we have the best doctors, the best hospitals – why did I have to move all the way to California, not just to find a place to help me learn to walk again, but a place to give me my life back?” he said. “I wanted to bring that home.”

So with the support of his brother, actor Jimmy Cummings, and others, Cummings started Journey Forward in 2008, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Canton that provides an exercise program to help people affected by spinal-cord injuries. Boston-area car dealer Ernie Boch Jr. learned about the organization several years ago and has been a strong supporter ever since, including by providing the use of a guesthouse at his Norwood home.

While in California, Cummings met Chris Knight, the actor who played Peter Brady in the 1970s hit television series called “The Brady Bunch” and who reprised the role more recently in the reality show, “My Fair Brady.” Knight has become an endorser and friend of Journey Forward.

“You know so completely and directly that it’s not just an organization that helps people, it’s Dan’s organization that helps other people as it helps himself,” Knight said in an interview in Norwood. “It’s really doing much more than helping the people it’s serving,” he added. “It’s changing the medical profession as it relates to paralysis.”

At Journey Forward, clients work with exercise machines and engage in neural stimulation and load-bearing exercises, as well as ambulatory training. The results have made it all worthwhile: Multiple clients have learned to walk again, Cummings said, with a proud smile.

Journey Forward has grown, too. Started with two staff members and nine clients, it now has a staff of 15 and works with 78 clients. Soon, the organization is moving to a larger facility nearby.

In the future, Cummings said he hopes to expand Journey Forward’s mission to include clients who have sustained a brain injury, a stroke or are affected by cerebral palsy. Some people with those conditions are already engaged with the organization.

But the program is expensive, at about $100 an hour, and many clients spend several hours each week at the center. While he didn’t receive financial assistance when he participated in the San Diego sessions, Cummings said his nonprofit organization operates differently. It provides financial aid for those in need, and to date has raised $196,400 that has gone to help 19 clients.

“This supplements the self-paid part for individuals who need it and can’t afford it, and much of the fundraising goes to that,” Knight said.

Knight came to Boston to help Cummings raise money for Journey Forward, which is hosting an event at the Dedham Kings at 600 Legacy Place Tuesday starting at 6 p.m. It’s the eighth annual “Vegas Casino Night” fundraiser, with per-person admission ranging from $60 for singles and groups of up to seven people to $50 each for larger groups.

Journey Forward supporters are also working with health insurers to cover access to the program for their beneficiaries. The techniques have been shown to help some people with paralysis, and the exercise it provides can reduce secondary complications, such as blood clots and pressure sores, Cummings said.

“The last time I was hospitalized due to a secondary complication for my spinal-cord injury was July of 2002,” Cummings said. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.