Going For Gold: Former Marianjoy Patient Competes For Team USA in 2018 Paralympics

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences February 08, 2018

Justin Marshall, of Madison, WI, has been transforming challenges into triumphs his whole life. Now 31, Marshall could not have known that the stroke he sustained at age 12 would be the beginning of his journey to the 2018 Paralympics. Marshall, a native of Benson, Ill., will compete in wheelchair curling at the games in PyeongChang, South Korea beginning March 9.

“Justin had a very rare spinal cord stroke—a blood clot got caught in the spinal canal,” explained Mary Keen, MD, medical director for Pediatrics at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine. “The stroke caused permanent paralysis below the waist.”

Shortly after suffering the stroke, Marshall began inpatient therapy at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, Illinois. The first priority was developing the core strength to sit up. Over a period of three months, the team at Marianjoy focused on helping Marshall build upper-body strength and develop range of motion and flexibility.

Nineteen years later, Marshall still vividly remembers therapy with the NuStep machine, a low-impact cardio machine that stimulates a patients’ arm and leg movement. Therapists can track their patients’ progress of strength and flexibility throughout treatment. The device was so helpful to Marshall, his family purchased one for their home.

“At Marianjoy, I learned self-discipline is crucial to success. Being rigorous in routine and schedules is key,” said Marshall. “My care team introduced a new routine every day, with hours of physical and occupational therapy. It was really well-structured. Ever since then, I’ve adopted that for myself—I schedule time for myself every day to do important things. There are no cheat days!”

His dedication and drive vaulted Marshall to the top of his sport in just four years. He first discovered curling during the last Olympics. When he learned the Paralympics curling coach lived in Madison too, he asked for an introduction.

“I realized curling is perfect for me, because it’s based on upper-body strength—and it’s more about finesse than pure strength,” said Marshall.

The game, in which large, round, flat stones are slid across an ice surface toward a mark, has been called “chess on ice,” because it involves out-strategizing one’s opponent—a mental aspect Marshall finds appealing. “I’ve always been interested in puzzles, riddles and things that exercise the brain. It’s what led me to both curling and my professional career as an architect,” said Marshall.

In addition to training for competition, Marshall continues to work full-time at Flad Architects in Madison, Wisconsin, where he promotes accessibility in designing structures. He says as a wheelchair user himself, he has an innate understanding of the challenges of accessibility. “I think about the fluid experience of a wheelchair-bound person and their relationship with the environment—not just tacking something on to help it meet ADA codes, but to make each person’s interaction truly fulfilling,” said Marshall.

Dr. Keen said she believes part of Marshall’s success is due to his positive attitude focusing on what he can do, versus what he cannot—something he exemplified as a child during his therapy at Marianjoy, as a Marianjoy Scholarship winner in college, and now as an architectural associate and athlete for Team USA. “Marshall is living proof of the value of rehabilitation,” said Dr. Keen. “He has always been highly motivated, and because he worked so hard during his therapy here, he is now able to do incredible things.”

Wheelchair curling will feature 12 countries competing for gold. The U.S. team will be seeking its first Paralympic medal in South Korea after finishing fifth (2014), fourth (2010), and seventh (2006) in prior Paralympics.

“Disability gave me a new perspective on life,” said Marshall. “Part of why I’m so passionate about curling is it’s accessible to everyone. That’s what I’m passionate about in my career, making things accessible—and that’s what I promote in sports, too.”

For more information about Marianjoy’s Pediatric Program, please visit http://www.marianjoy.org/clinical-programs/pediatrics/.

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