Aaron Baker, Motocross Racer, Gets 2nd Chance After Near-Fatal Crash ABC7 News


Aaron Baker was a world-class motorcycle rider until a catastrophic crash changed his life. He broke his neck, and clinically died. But doctors brought him back to life. 

Baker loved a bike like most kids love candy. The wind in his face gave him a sense of freedom, a sense of invisibility. That is until 1999 - shortly after signing his first pro-contract. His bike malfunctioned on the biggest jump.

"Instead, I landed on my head, and I could hear my neck break. I remember that moment vividly," said Baker.

"I could not believe my eyes," said Baker's mother, Laquita Conway. "A ventilator, heart monitors, every life-support machine was attached to him."

Six days in the intensive care unit, Baker went into respiratory failure and flat-lined.

"That moment was the most profound moment in my life, still is," said Baker. "I do everything today based on that experience."

Passing gave Aaron a new perspective on a second life, and his family was his biggest advocates.

"The doctors would tell them the prognosis, which is I had a one in a million chance of ever feeding myself. I heard that, but I couldn't relate. I didn't know, really, you're not talking about me. You don't know what I'm capable of doing," said Baker.

Just two years removed from the injury, insurance said it couldn't fund any more of the recovery process. A seed was planted in Baker and his mom to create the Center of Restorative Exercise, or C.O.R.E.

"I was out of acute rehab, and there were no opportunities. That was mind boggling. It was like, well hell, I've got this intense desire inside me to work hard, but where is a place that would allow me to do that?" said Baker.

Nine years after the injury, they raised funds for a facility in Northridge. The athletes there are 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from some form of disability.

"C.O.R.E. became the purpose for our lives having been so catastrophically devastated," said Conway. "For the walk that my son continues today, every day he wakes up with a spinal cord injury." 

Baker broke his neck, not his spirit. The man doctors gave a one-in-a-million chance of feeding himself again has walked 20 miles across the Mojave Desert. He's biked across America.

It's ironic -- a man with a broken neck is inspiring others to walk the walk when it comes to feeding on life.

"I feed on other people that show that spirit and want to overcome and they don't settle for mediocrity," said Baker.

Accessible Gyms Come of Age


If you want to pump some iron while maneuvering around with ease, there is good news: As more people living with disabilities strive to maintain healthy, active lifestyles, truly accessible gyms have started cropping up in major urban areas.

To get a better feel for what’s out there, we’ve delved into two new, unique workout centers that offer a lengthy list of accessible equipment and programs, and may serve as role models for future fitness facilities.  These centers are so customized that they could bump Northridge, Calif., and Phoenix, Ariz., into the top tier of America’s disability-friendly cities.

A C.O.R.E. Workout
The Center of Restorative Exercise (C.O.R.E.) in Northridge, Calif., takes a progressive look at health, with an eye toward preventing many of the secondary complications that can come with spinal cord injuries.  Co-founded earlier this year by mother and son duo, Laquita Conway and Aaron Baker, C.O.R.E. focuses on providing accessible, restorative exercise.  Taylor-Kevin Isaacs, a Clinical Exercise Physiologist/Kinesiologist and strength and conditioning specialist, is the other co-founder and partner.

After Baker was paralyzed in a motocross racing accident in May 1999, he and his mother worked together to maximize his physical potential and overall recovery through Isaacs’ Applied Kinesiology and Restorative Exercise Training System.  “Building upon the flicker of a toe, to the contraction of multiple muscles, Aaron’s recovery continues to evolve to this day,” Conway says.  The benefits of consistent restorative exercise have given Baker, a C4-6 quad, the means to achieve numerous awards in cycling marathons and other events.  “I’ve made my health and recovery the No. 1 priority in my life,” Baker says.

C.O.R.E. uses Baker’s experience to bring the power of a structured program to hundreds – and potentially thousands – of other Los Angeles-area wheelchair users.  The high-tech facility operates on the premise that secondary complications and degenerative changes may be prevented or significantly reduced if exercise becomes part of a daily routine.

At C.O.R.E. you’ll find specialized adaptive equipment by Cybex Total Access, NuStep and HydroGym, thoughtfully arranged for easy access.  Some of the Cybex Total Access equipment has swing-away seats, so you can roll your chair right up to the machine and choose the height of the handles and weight that works for you.  The NuStep equipment, meanwhile, has adaptive accessories that stabilize your legs, your feet secure.  Need to lift some free weights?  C.O.R.E. has you covered with adaptive gloves to help grip the weights and properly flex.

Striking red, black and chrome accents and a bold design give C.O.R.E. the edge and visual sophistication to get you moving, and the staff strives to create a close and supportive environment.  Each restorative exercise specialist takes a 20-week training course and final comprehensive exam so he or she can provide the best advice in achieving individual fitness goals.  As Chris Voelker, C6-7 and a C.O.R.E. member, says, “The staff is really helpful and makes each visit full of encouragement.  You don’t feel like a number at a giant fitness gym.  Joining the C.O.R.E. gym is the single healthiest thing I have done for my body since being paralyzed so many years ago.”

Keep your eye on C.O.R.E. in the future.  “We are setting C.O.R.E. centers up as a franchise, with the goal of becoming an empowering, enduring presence statewide, nationwide and ultimately globally," says Conway.

The Long Road Back


Had fate not stepped in, Taylor-Kevin Isaacs might still be playing professional soccer instead of helping severely injured people rebuild their bodies and regain control of their lives.

But Isaacs’ professional sports career ended seven years ago when he shattered his angle during a soccer match.  It took years for him to fight his way back to full recovery.  During that time, Isaacs discovered his true passion in physical therapy.

“I believe exercise is medicine,” said Isaacs, now an award-winning Clinical Exercise Physiologist/Kinesiologist at Cal State Northridge’s Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled.

Isaacs, 32, has had so much success at rehabilitating the disabled that he has gained international acclaim for his treatment of people with spinal cord injuries.  In the spring, he won the grand prize, from among thousands of entrants, in the MET-Rx World’s Best Personal Trainer Contest for the second year in a row.

A premed student as an undergraduate at UCLA, Isaacs came to CSUN in 1993 to earn his master’s degree in kinesiology.  He chose the Northridge university, Isaacs said, because “CSUN’s kinesiology department is the finest in the country.”

Fate again stepped in shortly after he began his graduate studies when, by accident, Isaacs met Sam Britten, founder and director of the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled.

“I was standing in the hallway looking into the center,” Isaacs said.  “What I saw was like a state-of-the-art health club, only the equipment had been adapted for the disabled.  I could feel the energy coming from the center.  It was electrically charged.”

Noticing Isaacs’ interest in the center, Britten approached Isaacs.  “Do you like helping people?” he asked.  Britten added, “This is a place where miracles occur.”

The former soccer player from South Africa immediately expressed interest in working at the center.  Britten hired him almost on the spot and the rest, as they say, is history.  Isaacs obtained his master’s degree and his certification as a Clinical Exercise Physiologist/Kinesiologist.  He now teaches a course in therapeutic exercise for special populations and works countless hours with clients at the center.

His first award from MET-Rx was for his work with Jesse Billauer, a young man who severed his spinal cord in a surfing accident, which left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down.  After working with Isaacs in a concentrated, individualized training program for 12 weeks, Billauer could transfer himself over in bed, play adapted games of pool, wheelchair tennis and baseball, and, with the help of friends, ride the waves on a surfboard again.

Isaacs earned his second MET-Rx award for his successful treatment of Aaron Baker, 22, a professional motocross racer who fractured three vertebrae during a practice run on May 26, 1999.  The accident left Baker paralyzed from the neck down.

“The echo of the fracture still haunts me,” Baker said.  “I can visualize every moment of the accident, my arms and legs flailing about in slow motion as I tumbled down the hill.  I came to rest on my right side at the bottom of the hill.

“I laid there with my left hand in front of my face trying desperately to move it, thinking to myself, ‘I just broke my neck.  I can’t feel my body.  This is bad.’”

Doctors at Los Robles Medical Center, where he was taken for emergency surgery, gave Baker a one in a million chance to ever walk again, said Laquita Conway, his mother who has devoted her life to her son’s rehabilitation since his accident.

After three weeks in intensive care at Los Robles, Baker was transferred to Northridge Hospital Medical Center to begin his rehabilitation.  He remained at that hospital until Oct. 9, 1999, when he was sent home to continue therapy as an outpatient.  By then, Baker had regained gradually some movement of his arms and legs.  First, feeling returned to a big toe, then to other parts of his body.  He could even walk a few steps with the assistance of a crutch.  But 20 months after the accident, Baker couldn’t handle any of his personal needs and hospital therapists said they could no longer help him.

“We were told the maximum had been done,” Conway said. “Aaron got so depressed.  It was his darkest time.”

Mother and son began to look elsewhere for programs that would help Baker.  Andrew Bray, a friend in a support group at Northridge Hospital, told them of the Center for Achievement for the Physically Disabled at CSUN.

Upon entering the center, Baker said, he felt his pulse quicken.  “I was in an environment I can best term as a ‘Gold’s Gym’ for the physically challenged.  My mind and body were craving adaptive exercise equipment and professional expertise to take me where I had potential of going – recovery on my own terms,” Baker wrote in an essay.

At the center, Conway and Baker were introduced to Isaacs and new hope for the future.

“When Aaron first came to me, he was slumped over like a dead man,” Isaacs said.  “He had chronic low back pain and he wasn’t eating.”

After a thorough physical and mental evaluation, Isaacs designed a personalized regimen of exercise and nutrition for Baker.  Within 12 weeks, Baker said his flexibility had improved dramatically, allowing him more normal range of motion.

“An example of this is having the ability now to reach the top of my head to brush my hair or to flip a hat backwards while it is on my head,” Baker said.

Now, he can feed, bathe and dress himself, walk unassisted for short distances and even drive a car.  And he continues his exercise four days a week with Isaacs with the hope of someday being completely independent once again.

“Taylor is not only my trainer, confidant and good friend, he is my teacher,” Baker said.  “We have a unique relationship, both professional athletes afflicted by injuries, possessing the passion for rehabilitation, in turn sharing the newfound knowledge gained through this process to others.  Taylor and I have everlasting friendship and a bond that will last for the rest of my life.  Together, we make magic.”

Isaacs believes anything is possible with an extraordinarily motivated person such as Baker.  He describes his methods as “highly individualized, full-time and caring.  The more you know about a person, the more you can help.”

Isaacs’ meticulously documented notes and photos of Baker’s progress are materials for a formal study he is doing on the long-term management of spinal cord injuries.  Isaacs hopes he can prove to insurance companies that long-term therapy does benefit victims of such injuries.

“Rehabilitation is a lifelong process,” Isaacs said.

“My career goal,” he added, “is to permanently alter the physiology of the body of individuals with diseases, disabilities and/or musculoskeletal injuries in an attempt to improve their function, independence, self-efficacy, and to prevent the secondary complications and degenerative changes that typically follow disability.”

26 Feet Mean Victory For Some Racers


You won't find them at the starting line at next Sunday's 22nd Los Angeles Marathon. Or even out on the course running just one mile of the 26.2-mile race.

But that doesn't matter. They'll still get the biggest applause of the day after walking only a few hundred feet of the course - slowly, unsteadily, painfully.

People love to cheer for a longshot, and there are no longer shots in the L.A. Marathon next week than the 11 men and women who meet every week in a workout room behind Gold's Gym in Northridge.

They are paraplegics, quadriplegics and serious stroke victims who were not supposed to be able to walk on their own again - let alone cross the finish line of their city's marathon on their feet and have a medal placed around their necks.

They've poured buckets of sweat, screamed in pain, and pushed their bodies as hard as any runner in the grueling race to earn that medal.

"It's all about crossing the finish line. And whether it's 26 miles for a runner or 26 feet for a person with a serious disability, it doesn't matter," says L.A. Marathon race director Steve Honikman.

"Taylor's people are champions. That's why the crowds love them and always cheer the hardest for them. They've accomplished something incredible and people can see that."

Taylor is Taylor Isaacs, a clinical exercise physiologist.

To his clients - people like Marc Richards, Tony Scott and Andy Davis, who worked with Isaacs on a recent Friday - the former professor of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, is nothing short of a miracle worker.

"He works you hard and makes you believe in yourself - that anything is possible. And it is," said Richards, a 47-year-old paraplegic.

The Castaic man learned that firsthand at the 2005 L.A. Marathon. He was Isaacs' first test case - the guy he would point to with dozens of future clients and say, "Hey, he did it. Why can't you?"

Richards and Isaacs went to the marathon's finish line a few days before the race and counted the steps backward to where Richards should get out of his wheelchair and start walking with the use of his forearm crutches.

They figured it would take about 30 minutes to cover a few hundred feet. Then came the day of the race.

"There were a bunch of people, including some U.S. Marines, at the finish line that year shouting Marc's name and yelling, `Go, Marc, Go."' Isaacs said.

"It was an incredible sight, everybody cheering him on. It didn't take him 30 minutes to cover that few hundred feet; it took him 17 minutes.

"He was flying on air," Isaacs said, laughing.

At the 2006 L.A. Marathon, six more people joined Richards, including Leon Hoyer, a South African man who was paralyzed in an accident three years earlier.

He had heard about the work Isaacs was doing and flew to the United States for treatment. He's back in South Africa now visiting his family.

Hoyer's entire 2006 marathon was one step. One big step.

"You should have seen the look on his face when he got out of his chair and managed to take that one step across the finish line," Isaacs said.

"Everybody was yelling encouragement and cheering him. He told me it was the best moment of his life, and I could see why. It's been the best moment in a lot of our lives."

This year, there will be 11 clients of Isaacs crossing that finish line - from 14-year-old Kirsten Jacobsen, who has cerebral palsy, to 77-year-old Degania Golove, a quadriplegic who will walk with the use of a front-wheel walker.

Those steps are important, Isaacs said, but so are the looks on the faces of the people cheering them on.

"We want to change people's perceptions," he said. "We don't want them thinking of Marc, Tony or Andy here as disabled men.

"We want them thinking of them as men, as husbands and fathers."

Because crossing that finish line is the only thing that matters.

Whether it's 26 miles or 26 feet.