After his all-terrain vehicle crashed near his home in Wasilla, Alaska, in March, Isaac Turnbull had the presence of mind to call his dad. He was okay, he said, except for one thing: He couldn’t feel his legs.
Isaac, 16, soon learned that he had fractured his back and injured his spinal cord. In a split second, he lost the use of his legs.
After three weeks in an Anchorage hospital, Isaac came to Seattle Children’s Rehabilitation Unit to continue his recovery and begin to learn the skills he would need to live in a wheelchair.
“When he got here he was feeling pretty hopeless — you could see it all over his face,” said occupational therapist Emily Sabelhaus, who worked with Isaac.
The goal of rehabilitation is to help patients find a way to get back to the activities they love, Sabelhaus said, but at first Isaac — an Alaska kid who loves to hunt and fish and be outdoors — couldn’t imagine how he would do that. He couldn’t see that his life, while different than he expected, could still be fulfilling and happy.
Halfway through his six-week stay on the rehab unit, Sabelhaus asked Isaac if he maybe wanted to punch something. Then she brought in an expert, Dr. Michael Astion, to show him how.
Astion, whose day job is medical director of the Department of Laboratories at Seattle Children’s Hospital, volunteers in the rehab unit, coaching patients on speed bag — a small punching bag that boxers use to practice quick punches.
“The only time we could get Isaac to crack a smile during the middle part of his stay was when he was working with Dr. Astion on speed bag,” said Sabelhaus.
It started with a cold call
Astion has enjoyed hitting the speed bag since he was a kid.
“When I was growing up, we followed three sports — baseball, football and boxing,” he says. “I started learning speed bags then, and I’ve never stopped.”
He was working as director of the reference laboratory at the University of Washington a decade ago when he read about an occupational therapist in Texas who used speed bag in his therapy practice.
“I was looking for a new volunteer gig, and this seemed like a great idea,” Astion said.
He cold-called Seattle Children’s and found a receptive therapist who agreed to meet him at the University of Washington gym to see what he was talking about.
“He liked it, so I came to the rehab gym at Seattle Children’s to talk to a larger group,” Astion said.
Because the rehab unit had no speed bag setup, Astion donated a bag and an adjustable-height stand.
“Everyone thought this would be a good thing for teenage boys, which turned out to be true,” Astion said. “But it turned out that it’s great for lots of kids — I’ve worked with girls and boys of all ages, close to 100 kids over the years.”
In 2011, a career move brought Astion to Seattle Children’s, making it even easier to volunteer an hour or two a week on the unit.
Astion is a medical doctor and has a PhD, and as a pathologist he deals with specimens. But coaching speed bag connects him to patients and reminds him that each of those specimens represents a person. When he works with patients like Isaac, he does so with the guidance of rehabilitation medicine experts like Sabelhaus.
“This is a way for me to connect to patients and understand their experience,” Astion said.
Isaac finds a hidden talent
Speed bag isn’t a treatment modality occupational therapists learn in school, and Sabelhaus isn’t aware of any other children’s hospitals that use it. But she says it has huge benefits for patients.
“It helps with functional endurance and builds the kind of upper body strength patients like Isaac need to push a wheelchair,” she said. “Speed bag also improves hand-eye coordination and range of motion, which is great for rehab patients with a variety of disabilities, not just spinal cord injuries.”
For Isaac, the psychological benefits of working with Astion were just as important as the physical ones.
“The change in Isaac’s affect was incredible to us,” said Sabelhaus. “As soon as he got his hands on the bag, he changed from sad to bright in a matter of minutes.”
“I was interested in speed bag before, but I didn’t know how to use it,” Isaac said.
At first, punching the bag was mostly a good way to let out steam. But he surprised himself, and everyone around him, by being really, really good at it.
“I’ve probably worked with 100 patients over the years, but this guy is different — he’s the best we’ve ever had,” Astion said. “I taught him nine increasingly difficult techniques, and he not only absorbed them but put them together in combinations. He has an innate sense of how to do it.”
As Isaac prepared to go home this spring, his dad went first to renovate his son’s bedroom and bathroom to make them wheelchair accessible. With guidance from Astion, he also set up a speed bag in the garage so Isaac can continue to let off steam — and improve his technique.