Daniel Leonard is doing all he can to walk again, and after a recent course of stem cell treatment hes as close as he has been since a few months after the 2005 injury that put him a wheelchair.
He was 22 years old and about to begin his third year of college when he woke up one August morning on the floor at his familys Johnson City home unable to move and struggling to breathe.
While the cause of his injury remains a mystery, what is known is that three vertebrae near the top of his spine had been crushed, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, on a ventilator and not expected to never walk or even breathe on his own again.
Six months after undergoing surgery to remove the bone fragments from his spinal cord, Leonard, who had played several sports in high school and was boxing at the Johnson City Athletic club prior to his injury, was exceeding all expectations.
In treatment at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, he was not only breathing independently, he was pulling himself up on parallel bars and being fitted with leg braces to help him take his first steps.
Then the unthinkable happed, again. Because there had been nothing done to stabilize his damaged vertebrae, his spine collapsed at the site of his injury and all of his progress was lost.
I worked my butt off to get to the point I was about to start walking, he said. But the gains he had made in upper body strength were erased and there was no longer any movement in his legs.
After a second surgery to fuse the bones, his condition was labeled as incomplete paraplegia characterized by limited movement and sensation in all the muscles below his neck and none at all in his legs. Doctors told his family he would never be able to move his legs, and for many years he could not.
For a while, he lived independently with the assistance of a caregiver. When his caregiver left, he moved to a nursing home, expecting to stay only long enough to find another place and another caregiver. But without money to finance that plan, months turned into years and the Four Oaks Health Care Center in Jonesborough became his home for the long term.
Early last year, things took a turn for the better when for reasons unknown he began to regain some movement in his legs. Encouraged, Leonard once again threw all his effort into physical therapy. In October, he began working out regularly with Amy Caperton, a personal trainer at the Tri-Cities Lifestyles fitness center in Johnson City, and coupled that with physical therapy at the new Mountain States Rehabilitation Center.
The fight to walk