It’s a typical Friday morning and Tom Colligan is working out in Peterson Gym. Excluding weekends, he is here every day stretching, lifting and pulling weights to stay in shape.
Although there are gyms all over San Diego, this is where Colligan must come to work out. Few facilities anywhere are equipped to accommodate his needs.
"I come here because I have cerebral palsy and it's really difficult for me,” he explained. “I need assistance to help with the machines and things like that.
“It would be very difficult for me to go to a regular gym. I would have to hire somebody to help me reach the machines. I probably wouldn't be able to transfer (from his motorized chair) onto a lot of the machines as far as I can tell."
For seven years, Colligan has been coming to SDSU’s Fitness Clinic for Individuals with Disabilities. It’s a community outreach program that assists clients with a wide range of physical disabilities, helping to improve their flexibility, endurance, strength and overall health and wellness.
Like Colligan, most of the clinic’s clients need special fitness assistance they can’t find anywhere else. Many are post-rehab patients who need help for which their insurance won’t pay.
The clinic also serves to help educate SDSU students majoring in fields such as adaptive physical education, kinesiology, pre-physical therapy and fitness. Instructed and supervised by faculty and staff, students work with clients to help them reach their fitness goals.
"It’s good here because a lot of the machines are geared toward people in wheelchairs and they have one-on-one assistance — usually students — to help me reach the machines or who will modify a regular exercise so that a person in a chair can do it,” Colligan said. “They do stretching and stuff that I wouldn't be able to do on my own."
Colligan hasn’t been in a chair his whole life, but he has needed one for many years now. At 54 years old, he needs the kind of assistance he receives only from a place like the Fitness Clinic.
"This helps me to maintain functionality and to be able to do things in my chair — to get dressed and certain things - because as you get older you start to not have the same ability to just whip yourself around like you used to when you were 20,” he says.
Kathy McCarty-Baker is one of the students who help clients like Colligan. The first-year grad student is a kinesiology major who volunteers between six and seven hours each week at the clinic. She says the clinic is the primary reason she chose SDSU for her graduate studies.
“As soon as I found out about this place I knew that I wanted to be here,” said the 28-year-old Michigan native. “These are real people who need real help and they come here and we can help them. It’s invaluable to have that kind of real-world experience."
A growing reputation
Colligan is one of more than 1,300 people helped by the clinic since it opened in 1983. Clients of all ages and disabilities depend on the clinic, including those recovering from strokes and brain injuries or those with multiple sclerosis, spina bifida and cerebral palsy.
The clinic has gained such a good reputation that last year it was recognized by Sharp HealthCare with the organization’s Eagle Spirit Award. The award symbolizes a Navajo sign of the most potent healing power.
The recognition has proved to be a mixed blessing. When word got out about the clinic, referrals shot up.
"We snowballed after that award,” said Jan Thurman, the clinic’s director. “Last spring I would say I had 80 clients and now we’re up to 150.”
The growing numbers put a strain on the small section of Peterson Gym that houses the clinic, crowding its clients and workout areas.
"I've noticed there's a lot more people,” Colligan said. “There's a bunch of wheelchairs and they take up space.
“We’re always congregating in certain places talking or getting ready to work out and so you kind of have to work around everybody. To me, the place needs more space.”
“It's really challenging keeping and maintaining the equipment for 150 people coming here up to five times a week in such a small setting,” Thurman added. “It's adapted equipment that you don't find in a normal fitness facility and eventually, that stuff breaks down. We need to replace it and some of the equipment is very costly.”
Including Thurman, there are two full-time and two part-time staff members. Although many students receive class credit through Rehab Fitness Clinic Lab ENS 388 for their work at the clinic, Thurman recruits others to volunteer in order to maintain the one-to-one, hands-on attention clients need.
Although clients pay fees, many usually do so out of their own pockets, so the clinic tries to keep costs low.
“It's just really challenging," Thurman said. “We don't bill insurance and we’re supposed to be self-sufficient even though we’re a class. We operate in the red and we can't do that forever. We need funding."
As the clinic’s reputation expands, so likely will its client base. According to Colligan, the only people in situations like his who aren’t visiting the clinic are the ones who don’t know about it.
"I think a lot of people who would come here don't know the place exists,” he said. “People need to know that they exist and they do a really good job."