Three years ago, Bob Neuman started losing feeling in his feet because of a nerve disorder.
As the idiopathic neuropathy took hold, simple things like getting dressed became difficult or even dangerous.
“My feet have gone totally dead, no feeling at all for the rest of my life,” Neuman said.
The condition worsened when his big toe got infected almost all the way to the bone. The treatment, which included skin transplants, left him bed bound for months on end.
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Suddenly, the man who ran marathons, worked undercover as a Dallas narcotics officer and taught himself how to be a professional juggler could barely walk for a year and a half.
Muscle atrophy made things even worse as he resigned himself to this fate in his mid-60s.
This was going to be his retirement.
Perhaps the most frustrating part was not being able to keep up with his grandchildren or even feel safe carrying them upstairs.
“I just thought I’d have to get used to having a limited lifestyle,” he said. “I used to walk 2 or 3 miles a couple times a week but the walking became very uncomfortable because I really had to concentrate on lifting my foot up.”
His life changed when he met Cheryl Till, a geriatric-certified physical therapist at Texas Health Arlington Memorial. Till was hosting a seminar on balance one day but Neuman asked her afterwards if she could help him with his nerve damage.
She assured him that they could get his muscles back up to strength with the proper exercises. Neuman got the referral from his doctor and started the rehabilitation process in January.
Till doesn’t take no for an answer — instead she finds something that will motivate the patient, a goal she can use as a carrot.
“They say, ‘I’m a geriatric patient.’ No. No. No. You can get that back at any age but more importantly as a person ages you have to push it harder,” she said.
Neuman’s goal was to get his active lifestyle back.
He started with a yellow resistance belt, the easiest, doing simple exercises to bring strength back to his toes and ankles. Over a matter of months he moved up to black belt, the strongest belt.
“We started with high reps and low loads to give input to the muscles but not cause diminished overall function,” Till said. “I didn’t want to work him so hard that he then had to be off his feet for two days.”
When he used to walk, he’d feel like he was on unstable ground but it was because his ankles were rolling over without him knowing it. He started wearing skateboarding shoes to slowly help him regain his balance.
He did learn to walk again, even without being able to feel his feet. Till had him practice standing flat with his eyes closed so he could teach himself how to balance, the key to juggling.
“Our body is able to counteract for something below the knees,” Till said. “If he can uptrain the inner ear, he can uptrain his joints so he’s concentrating on that, you can compensate for that.”
It’s similar to how a blind person heightens the other senses.
Now 11 months later, Neuman is back to bicycling, kayaking and juggling. He’s teaching a juggling class to special needs students at Special Connexion 2, an adult day camp run by Advocates for Special People.
“I never thought I’d be able to juggle again,” he said. “I was very discouraged. I used to go to several juggling events around the country every year. That was a big part of my life.”
Now, his only regret is not doing physical therapy sooner.
For Till, these success stories are a testament to the human body and spirit.
“Every day it’s amazing,” she said.