It’s Sunday evening, and Jack Jablonski is hosting a Super Bowl party.
Teammates from the boys hockey team are over, and the whole gang is having a blast, chowing down ribs from Famous Dave’s as they watch the game. The room is alive with noise, laughter and excitement.
Of course, the locale isn’t exactly what Jablonski would have in mind. The 16-year-old sophomore, who was by a hit he took in a game on Dec. 30, is at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, working on regaining strength. Jablonski has some movement below his elbows, but he can’t walk and his overall mobility is limited.
On Monday morning after the Super Bowl party, Jablonski is back at what Sister Kenny Physician-in-chief Dr. Karl Sandin calls an “arduous” rehab program. Since the end of January, Jablonski has been in therapy for nearly eight hours a day, six days a week. And he’ll probably be here another seven to 10 weeks, Sandin said.
“It’s tough—it’s a lot of therapy in one day,” said Jablonski's mom, Leslie Jablonski. “(But) I think he enjoys part of it and enjoys the challenge.”
People with spinal cord injuries often enter a catabolic state—meaning they burn excessive amounts of calories, Sandin said—so it’s important that meals are hearty. Jack’s days start around 8 a.m. with breakfast, but sometimes he’s too tired to eat. Therapists have been working with him to use a fork, but he often needs help.
After breakfast, it’s time for morning stretches, with the help of Sister Kenny staff. Sometimes these sessions involve acupuncture, aromatherapy or massage. Following some rest, Jablonski often spends his afternoons in a therapy room Sandin describes as similar to normal fitness centers.
“It might not be that different from what you’re trying to accomplish when you go to the gym,” he said. “Just maybe in a different way.”
During these sessions, Jablonski goes through progressive resistance exercises, where therapists have him work on moving his arms while they apply more and more weight. Like with any workout program, Jablonski is trying to build muscle memory and strength.
The workouts leave Jablonski spent—his mother said he often feels dizzy and nauseous in the afternoon. Sometimes an ice pack and a nap will do the trick, though sometimes he feels ill into the evening.
“That’s hard, to watch him not feel well,” Leslie Jablonski said. “When he doesn’t feel well, he doesn’t want to eat. It becomes a cycle, and I hope it gets better.”
Sandin explains the nausea by noting that many patients with spinal cord injuries have low blood pressure as they try to regain mobilility. That nausea usually goes away with time, the doctor said.
“We want people to say, ‘Man, I’m really working hard in therapy.’ That’s a good thing to hear from people,” Sandin said. “And we’re hearing that from him.”
Sandin can't predict where Jablonski will be when he leaves rehab sometime this spring, as all spinal cord patients recover in different ways. The main goal of therapy, he said, is to make sure Jablonski is in as much control of himself as possible, no matter what his mobility level is.
Currently, Jablonski is getting used to a motorized wheelchair, operated by a control panel near his left hand. Considering he hadn’t yet received his driver’s permit, his mother reports Jablonski is “learning how to drive.”
“It’s a process,” Leslie Jablonski said. “He’s mastering it, but it will take time.”
She thinks her son has the motivation to tackle wheelchair 101—and more. Jablonski was cooped up at the Hennepin County Medical Center for 24 days immediately after his injury, and being in rehab gives him more hope about his progress, she said.
"He’s just anxious to move forward and get on with his life,” she said. “He just wants to be a kid again, and he knows that this is where it will happen.”