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'It was pretty shocking,' paralyzed former hockey player Jablonski says of wiggling toes

Jack Jablonski, seen here in a photo posted to Twitter in December 2017, suffered a spinal cord injury in late 2011 during a junior varsity hockey game as a sophomore. Special to Forum News Service

MINNEAPOLIS—It was the faintest of movements, three toes barely wiggling.

Jack Jablonski was sitting on his parents' deck in Minneapolis before heading out to dinner on the Fourth of July when it happened.

He'd taken his shoes off to alleviate swelling in his feet. With a couple of moments to spare, he tried to repeat the tiny movement he had worked to replicate since it happened this past December.

"I just happened to look at my feet and decided to try and then all of a sudden, on my command, I was able to get some tingles or some twitches in the right foot on the outside three toes," Jablonski recalled this week. "It was pretty shocking."

Twitching toes is a big deal for Jablonski, who suffered a spinal cord injury in late 2011 during a junior varsity hockey game when he was a sophomore at Benilde St. Margaret's.

Doctors told him he'd be paralyzed from the chest-line down, and for the most part, he has been.

That's why wiggling his toes matters, especially since he was able to repeat the movement several times, according to his mom, Leslie Jablonski.

He did it once before this past December. But despite his best efforts, he couldn't make his toes cooperate with his commands again until last week.

"It's huge," Leslie Jablonski said. "When he was injured, doctors believed his spinal cord was completely severed and that he wouldn't be able to get any function below his level of injury ... So the fact that he was able to move his toes on command, and repeat it, it means that something must still be connected. Even if it's just a thread. Somehow, something is working."

Jablonski called his parents out onto the deck to watch his foot in action.

"To see the strain on his face was incredible, and to watch two or three of his toes move time after time after time was just beyond exciting," Leslie Jablonski said. "It's a moment I won't forget."

Stoked about the milestone, Jablonski posted a video of his twitching toes to Twitter on Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, it had been viewed nearly 300,000 times.

Jablonski credits his hard work in physical therapy, which emphasizes the body-mind connection.

When he's not in school — Jablonski is a senior at the University of Southern California — he does physical therapy three days a week for three and a half hours at a time. During the school year, he drops down to twice a week.

In addition to wiggling his toes, Jack Jablonski has been occasionally able to activate muscles in his lower body, including his glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors and lower abdominal muscles.

But his toes feel like a particularly big deal, he said.

"It just keeps me very optimistic that all my hard work is paying off ... Also, from (our) foundation's standpoint, it shows that people who put in the hard work can sometimes get back some of the function they were told they never would."

"It just makes me want to find that next miracle or medical breakthrough," he added.

His foundation, the Jack Jablonski Bel13ve in Miracles Foundation, is currently raising money to support a trial study through Mayo Clinic that is testing the effectiveness of epidural stimulation on paralysis, Leslie Jablonski said.

The process involves implanting a battery-back of sorts to a patient's spine to stimulate movement in areas of the body that have been paralyzed. The hope is that over time, the stimulation will lead to recovery of function, Leslie Jablonski said.

Breakthroughs like Jack Jablonski's recent toe-wiggling give hope for all people living with paralysis, she added.

Her son remains resolute that he will someday walk and eventually skate again, but in the meantime, small victories will suffice, Leslie Jablonski said.

"Even to get hand function back and some of these other functions would be life-changing," she said. "One thing at a time."

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