Fitness center awakens hope, recovery


For a paraplegic wanting to work out, a neighborhood gym is not going to cut it.

“Guys in wheelchairs are not going to go to a 24-hour Fitness or Frogs,” said Laura Karch, who runs a nonprofit fitness center for individuals with spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s or cerebral palsy.

The Awakenings Health Institute in Solana Beach offers a complete range of holistic rehabilitation and health services, including specialized strength training, neurological stimulation, adaptive yoga and Pilates, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, nutrition and counseling.

“We support the whole person to get the most out of their workouts and life,” said Angela Smith, the institute’s chiropractor and nutrition counselor.

The center helps clients reach their varied fitness goals, be it a newly injured client wanting to regain functional strength so they can be more independent or a challenged athlete training for the Paralympics.

The North Rios Avenue studio features specialized equipment, including a gait trainer, which allows clients to simulate walking; a functional electrical stimulation bike, which stimulates nerves to move the leg muscles in a pedaling motion; and power plates, which stimulate the nervous system through intense vibration.

Stimulating nerves that are no longer receiving signals helps retrain and reconnect those pathways, Smith said.

It also keeps bones strong and prevents muscles from atrophying.

Support needed

Since Awakenings Health Institute opened in 2004, more than 100 clients havecome from all over the county and beyond to take advantage of its unique services. The center is one of only 13 facilities in the nation designed for individuals with spinal cord injuries.

To keep costs low and services accessible, the institute is set up as a nonprofit so friends, family and the community can support the individuals going through rehab or maintaining their fitness goals, which can run $280 to $4,000 a month. “The ultimate goal is to have it all subsidized,” said Matt McCall, trainer and massage therapist.

Awakenings clients and staff will be on hand to introduce the organization’s mission to the community. Karch said this will also be a great opportunity for the able bodied population to mingle with the disabled group in a casual atmosphere.

“People are not educated about disabilities. They are scared of it, and are almost overly too helpful, which makes the person feel weird,” Karch said. “They just want to be treated the same way they were prior to all this happening.”

Out of the chair

By all traditional expectations, Karch should be in a wheelchair herself. She injured her spinal cord in a car accident 14 years ago, losing function from the neck down. However, she fully recovered through a variety of healing methods, a cooperative insurance company and a supportive family.

She is the exception to the rule.

Knowing the system

Most of the 12,000 people with new spinal cord injuries every year go through basic in-patient rehab, and then are left on their own, unable to work and facing massive healthcare bills for caretakers, Karch said.

“Most people flounder around for two to three years after an injury,” Karch said. “They don’t know what to do, where to go.”

Not only has Biggs built up his strength and energy, he said the sense of community and camaraderie at Awakenings also lifts his spirits and gives him hope for walking again.

“Hospitals teach you how to live in a chair,” Biggs said. “Here it’s more about getting out of your chair and doing more things on your own.”

Supporting event

A fundraiser will be held at Pizza Port in Solana Beach this Sunday. Twenty percent of all food and beverage sales between noon and 5 p.m. will be donated to Awakenings Health Institute, but diners must present a flier at time of purchase.

Fliers are available at the institute at 110 N. Rios or can be downloaded at