At 20, just a happy-go-lucky kid, Aaron had big dreams. His aspiration was to make a career as a professional motocross racer. As an amateur he performed well, winning prestigious events, and living the racer lifestyle – hopping from couch to couch and race to race.
But he never quite made it to the big time. Aaron went over the handlebars during a race and broke his neck.
“It was a pretty life-changing day to say the least.”
Diagnosed as a complete quadriplegic from the chin down, with a cervical injury of his C4, 5 and 6, his worst fear was realised.
”I often thought, if this happened, I wouldn’t want to live anymore, that I would have killed myself.Aaron BakerSCI Recovery and Exercise Expert
But in fact, when he found himself faced with the situation, now over 20 years ago, all he wanted to do was live.
“It was just such a reverence for life I felt so strongly and deeply. I was able to face the fear and face the challenge head on.”
Aaron was filled with a lot of anger and has to maintain a tight balancing act between his emotions of frustration, and gratitude, even now. Instead of letting them overwhelm him, he harnesses them and channels the intensity into whatever goal he is working towards at the time, whether that is function or movement.
Quite frankly, coming home from rehab was shit. There was nothing out there, no facilities available to help him with his recovery. There were standard exercise gyms, but with no adaptive equipment, this was of no use to him.
“There were no clinicians that understood my condition. All I wanted to do was work, I was hell-bent on putting in effort to maximise my return of function.”
Aaron knew if he stopped working, his body would quickly regress and he would no chance of a successful recovery. He was severely depressed, and with nowhere to go for help, he was ready to end it.
But through it all, his mother was his saviour. She scoured the country looking for opportunities, reaching out to friends, always trying to bring hope back into his life. They eventually discovered the Centre of Achievement, in LA, a teaching-learning lab filled with equipment and run by students who were working with spinal cord injury and thinking outside the box.
“I looked around the room, saw this equipment, saw this environment, I thought, ‘hell, this is where I can get it done’.”
In order to attend the centre for three years, for four-six hours, six days a week, his family liquidated their assets. His mother, after selling off everything, basically had nothing left. They received support from the state California children’s service, as well as social security payments.
“We were living off food stamps off the state, and doing rehab and mum would help others for pay. That was our life day in, day out.”
Inspired by his experience with the Centre of Achievement and also by the lack of facilities that were around when Aaron was discharged, he and his mum opened the Centre of Restorative Exercise, C.O.R.E, in 2011.
Their centre is located in Northridge, California and pledges to bridge the gap from rehabilitation to regular fitness. Clientele isn’t just restricted to people with spinal cord injury, also including stroke patients, war veterans, people with neurological conditions and elite athletes, all under one roof with access to specialists, and adaptive equipment.
“We like to systematically progress a client through phases depending on competency and abilities, it doesn’t feel like rehab, I wanted it to feel inspiring and empowering. When you come through the door, it feels like a race shop, all the equipment is clean and sharp, vibrant, and the energy’s high.”
For anyone going through a similar situation to what Aaron did 20 years ago, he is brutally honest with them.
“It’s hard as hell. It doesn’t get easier, even after all these years. Now I’m ageing with a spinal cord injury, and that’s a whole set of new challenges.”
Most of all, you have to be willing to suffer.
“That’s the bottom line, self-induced suffering. It’s going to suck either way, so you can either put yourself through the motions and get out there and be active and participate in sports, adventure, exercise, or you can sit on your ass and let this injury completely demoralise you.”
About 16 years into his recovery progress, Aaron was compelled to be go out into the dessert alone, to be with his thoughts and to see how far he could walk.
“It’s so damn hard to take a simple step. It’s the same amount of effort to take one step, 10 steps, hundred steps or 30,000 steps across the dessert. I suggest people do that for themselves, integrate with nature, learn to be grateful for what you have.”
His journey of walking 20 miles over a week, from Death Valley to a town named Baker was depicted in a documentary called ‘Coming to My Senses’.
The proactive approach Aaron and his mother took to his rehabilitation created an optimal healing environment. The change of ambience from the sterile, loud, cold mechanical hospital room to the tranquil serene environment his mother created for him, filled with music all the time from sounds of the rainforest and Tibetan monk chants created an aura of positive energy.
One of Aaron’s main techniques was visualisation, something he took from his motocross days and applied to his body. In the way he used to imagine completing a perfect jump or technique on a course, he would now imagine his muscular and skeletal system, the electrochemical signals passing through his body like electricity.
“I focused on that wholeheartedly, day in day out. I still do.”
To use this sort of technique, Aaron recommends educating yourself with harmonics, frequency, and to read the book, The Biology of Belief by Dr. Bruce Lipton.
”Learn about biology and how powerful the mind’s influence is over the restoration of every cell in your body.Aaron BakerSCI Recovery and Exercise Expert
A huge part of rehabilitation for him involved setting goals. Having tasks to work on and work towards, made a huge difference to his progress. He knew walking again was out of the question, but he was desperate to achieve independence in any shape or form.
“My first goal after my sister painted my toes, was I wanted to be able to wiggle a toe. I focused on the left little toe and was able to make a connection. That was my first huge achievement, so I built on that one flicker at a time.”
These days Aaron tries to walk as much as possible, using a wheelchair just 50 per cent of the time. He can walk without a cane, but is pretty unstable and uses a four-wheel walker sometimes so he can sit when he needs to.
His wheelchair is just a vehicle to get from A to B. While it’s easier to the chair, Aaron knows the importance of maintaining bone density through standing, to prevent the secondary complications like muscular atrophy and joint contractions that come from sitting all the time.
Aaron is driven to be outdoors and has a garage full to bursting with various adaptive equipment. He is currently building his own Harley Davidson chopper. With a weak right hand he has limited wrist movement, so the whole bike is custom, including a Velcro strap that binds his hand to the throttle.
For others on the same journey, there are many inspiring stories on social media and Aaron implores people to reach out to others going through it.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help, it’s my honour to share, it gives me more purpose.”
He spends five days a week at C.O.R.E and also does work with Red Bull Wings for Life, a non-profit foundation dedicated to aiding spinal cord injury research. But his new focus for the future is starting a family with his beautiful wife.
You can follow Aaron Baker on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @imaaronbaker or check out his website
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