In the summer of 2012, professional handyman Curtis Wolff was 56 years old, ran his own business and kept active bowling, golfing, fishing and hiking.
Then West Nile virus turned his world upside down, leaving his body paralyzed—and it wasn’t until he found a nonprofit organization promoting the use of massage and other integrative therapies for people with disabilities and special needs that he began feeling normal again.
One Mosquito Bite
When the mosquito bit Wolff, he barely noticed. He spent a lot of time outside; a bug bite didn’t seem like a big deal.
Then he began feeling run-down. When he didn’t improve, he saw his physician. His blood pressure reading was extremely low. His doctor said he likely had some sort of infection.
His symptoms worsened, and one day, unable to stand up, Wolff went to the local hospital. Two weeks later, he woke up again in that hospital, unable to talk or move. West Nile virus, which is often transmitted by mosquitoes, had attacked his spinal cord.
In a way, he was lucky. West Nile virus killed 286 people in the U.S. in 2012, reported NBC News. While many people who have caught West Nile suffer flu-like symptoms such as body aches and fever, and many show no symptoms, in some individuals the virus proves deadly.
Wolff would live, the doctors told him—but he could no longer move his arms and legs.
While receiving rehabilitative treatment at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, Wolff was encouraged by the staff to seek such integrative therapies as massage, adaptive exercise and acupuncture once he returned home.
The trouble was, his illness had caused him to close his business, depriving him of income and leaving him dependent on Medicaid, which didn’t cover the cost of integrative therapies.
Then Wolff heard about the Chanda Plan Foundation.
Funding for Integrative Therapies
The Colorado-based, nonprofit Chanda Plan Foundation provides direct care services at its health center in Lakewood, Colorado, and funding for grantees to get care nationwide.
The foundation serves people with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida. Services directly provided or funded include acupuncture, massage, yoga, adaptive exercise, chiropractic care, care coordination and behavioral health services.
The Massage Therapy Foundation awarded the Chanda Plan Foundation a 2018 Community Service Grant, supported by a gift from BIOTONE, a maker of massage and spa products. This grant will help fund the foundation’s disability-competent massage therapy program.
The foundation was co-founded and is helmed by its namesake, Chanda Hinton Leichtle, who became a quadriplegic after being accidentally shot when she was 9 years old. It wasn’t until she was an adult and nearly died, weighing only 59 pounds, that she was introduced to integrative therapies.
The therapies saved—and changed—her life, she says. “I tell people every day when I speak, when I talk about the work of the foundation—I am here because of my choice to [get] massage and acupuncture and chiropractic and physical therapy.”
How Integrative Therapies Helps Special Needs Clients
Integrative therapies such as massage do for the immobile body what it can’t do for itself, Hinton Leichtle said. Adaptive exercise helps maintain bone density; massage helps with blood circulation; acupuncture aids in internal organ function; and adaptive yoga supports both mind and body wellness, she added.
The result of such therapeutic treatment is improved quality of life and health, she said, and reduced health care costs.
The foundation reports that its own data shows client pain is reduced by 30 percent, drug use is reduced 50 percent, and medical care visits are cut in half. Clients also report greater independence because these therapies allow them to function better on their own and get out and interact with their communities.
Getting His Life Back
That increased independence has certainly been the case for Wolff, whose health was devastated by West Nile virus.
After he returned home from rehabilitative treatment, Wolff applied for support from the Chanda Plan Foundation and got his adaptive exercise, massage therapy and acupuncture entirely paid for.
While he was wheelchair-bound, Wolff’s muscles had atrophied. More than any other therapy, deep tissue massage helped him regain some mobility and eliminated his pain, he said.
When he started therapy, Wolff could only use one finger to operate his power wheelchair. After a year of therapy, he had regained enough movement in his hands to be able to type and use a standard, joystick-operated wheelchair. His 7-to-9 level of pain on the pain scale dropped to 0—and he has not once been readmitted to the hospital.
But best of all, Wolff said, he has gained enough range of motion and core strength to get his driver’s license back. “So, I have my independence to a point,” he said.
That independence is everything. It means he can now get out into his community. Today he participates in competitive bowling, is active on several governing boards and even works part-time teaching classes.
While his life today is not “normal, by any means,” he said, he is able to feel great and live an active life because of integrative therapies. He’s learned, he said, that “just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you have to be sick or sickly.”
Advocates for the Disabled
That, in a nutshell, is the ethos of the Chanda Plan Foundation and its health center, said founder Hinton Leichtle, and is why part of her and her foundation’s mission is advocating for those with long-term disabilities.
She and the foundation were the driving force behind the state of Colorado’s Medicaid program adopting the Spinal Cord Injury Waiver in 2009. The waiver pays for integrative therapies for adults with a spinal cord injury who live in the Denver metropolitan area.
The waiver is due to be evaluated in 2020 to see if the health outcomes make it worth continuing. Hinton Leichtle and the foundation are advocating that not only is it worth continuing, it needs to be expanded to help more people.
Some integrative services may seem like a luxury or spa service, she said, but to people like herself with long-term physical disabilities, they become life-sustaining.
“I don’t care if I ever walk again—I know that [I won’t]—but I don’t want to get worse. I want to be healthy,” Hinton Leichtle said.
While for many, the idea that being physically disabled and healthy seems impossible, with integrative therapies, it is a reality.
“We’re revisiting that conversation,” she said. “Disability and wellness are two words that absolutely can coexist in our world today.”
About the Author:
Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine; her articles include “New West Virginia Law Requires Alternatives to Opioids” and “In the Midst of Gentrification, Oakland Cancer Clinic Offers Massage to Low-Income Clients.”