Road to recovery 

After being paralyzed from the waist down, Brendan Cavanagh is making important steps forward

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE - GLIDING Brendan Cavanagh uses a Reformer exercise machine to build his back muscles.
  • Photo by Joel Barde
  • GLIDING Brendan Cavanagh uses a Reformer exercise machine to build his back muscles.

In a move that has become familiar, Brendan Cavanagh lowers himself out of his wheelchair and lays down on the Reformer, a high-end piece of exercise equipment that sits flat on the ground and is popular with Pilates enthusiasts.

Feet perched on a bar that sits above one end, within minutes he's gliding back and forth along the carriage. "It feels so good to get exercise," he said, as he starts to work up a sweat.

For the past two years, Cavanagh has been using the Reformer at Whistler's Peak Performance Physiotherapy, and according to his physiotherapist (and the clinic's owner) Allison McLean, the results have been astonishing.

"To see what's happened is phenomenal. It's miraculous really," she said.

In 2014, a snowboard crash left Cavanagh paralyzed from the waist down. His muscles quickly shriveled away. All he could feel was intense nerve pain.

But ever so slowly, he "retrained" his mind to connect with his lower body.

And with the assistance of a walker, he can now walk. "It's not pretty. But I can manage," he said.

There have, of course, been some challenging times. Whistler isn't the most wheelchair-friendly place to start, and in the winter, he is often holed up in his apartment for long periods of time, resulting in bouts of serious depression.

But through it all, he's worked hard — with the assistance of both Peak Performance and the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program — and hopes to one day not need his chair.

"It may be a grand vision, but if I could get a couple laps on a snowboard that'd be pretty great," he said with a laugh.

Now he's got his sights on a bigger goal: In October 2018, he wants to walk from Creekside to Whistler — and he's using the walk as a way to raise money to buy a Reformer.

The machine is not covered by medicare, and Cavanagh said the disability payments he's receiving, around $960/month, are woefully inadequate, making it hard to save.

His goal is $8,400 — to cover the cost of a good model and some sessions with a personal trainer — and he's already raised over $6,000. And while much of the donations are under $100, he's received a couple substantial ones from former employers: $1,000 from the owners of Mongolie Grill, and $500 from the owners of Whistler Show Services.

McLean has been donating her time and facility to help (his treatment is also not covered by medicare). And while she thinks his goal is "ambitious," she thinks it is achievable and that having a Reformer at home will go a long way in helping Cavanagh make the journey.

"You can see, he's actually doing squats, whereas he can't do them standing," she said, watching him work the machine. "Given another year, he'll be walking more and more on his own."

To donate to Cavanagh's campaign, head to


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