When people around the Hinckley area hear Joshua Benson’s name, they probably know who he is and about the four-wheeling accident a few years ago that rendered him paralyzed. What they maybe don’t know is the young man the doctors said would never walk again is now taking one step for posterity and one giant leap toward all that lay ahead in his life.
It was three years ago the 19-year-old’s name became part of household conversation, a name heard on primetime news and read in news bulletins across the internet. On August 16, 2014, when he was 16, the ATV Josh was riding flipped after the front right wheel locked. He was airlifted to North Memorial Hospital that day, where the doctor told him he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life from the waist down.
The accident and circumstances surrounding it (he saved his then-girlfriend from a severe injury) garnered a lot of attention. Soon people in Wal-Mart, whom he didn’t know, would whisper his name in recognition when they saw him. The Vikings also lauded him with their Courage Award in May 2015.
A month later, when Josh visited the Vikings at practice, Adrian Peterson told him he would walk again. An ESPN article from 2015 reported Peterson giving Josh advice, “... as long as you just stay focused and this is something you want to accomplish, you can accomplish that.”
Benefits were held for Josh by members and businesses of the community. Marie, Josh’s mom, recalled how “awesome” it was to see the community come together like that. “People I had only seen once or didn’t know at all were there, too,” she said.
These events are only small parts of Josh’s larger story. The ongoing chapter, though, could perhaps be climactic not only for his life, but potentially for lives around the world. Josh’s life changed in more than one way that August day he was airlifted to North Memorial.
It was that day, yes, that Josh learned of the complete spinal break and the doctor shared the hard news of paralysis. It was also the day a seed of hope was unknowingly planted.
Charlotte Brenteson, DPT, was Josh’s physical therapist from pretty much day one at North Memorial, Marie said. Char, as she became known to the Bensons, and Josh had an “immediate connection,” according to Marie. “She could get to his level … She pushed him in the ways he needed to be pushed.”
What the Bensons didn’t know about at the time was Char’s side project: Lite Run.
The Lite Run is difficult to explain in-person, and putting pen to page is even a more strenuous task. “It’s kind of like a walker, but not really like a walker,” Josh attempted.
Char said the closest thing to the Lite Run on the market would be exoskeleton robotics or the LiteGait System. The former is best pictured as Forrest Gump as youngster, learning to walk properly. Josh has been using a similar system during his physical therapy sessions now. It includes leg braces and arm crutches. “He would go 300 feet, and he’d be all red, sweating and shaking,” Josh’s dad, David, explained. It’s a lot of hard work to stay balanced and requires careful attendance at each step. The latter straps on to the pelvis, and is “really uncomfortable,” in Char’s words.
Doug Johnson and John Hauck were the main developers and engineers behind the Lite Run. The two started talking at a swim meet, where their children were competing. Their original idea was to develop something that could help runners in particular recover from injuries. Water served as a type of inspiration; they considered the unweighting effect that happens, the buoyancy and the ways in which water is used in other injury recoveries.
Instead of water, though, they would use air compression. By distributing the air pressure evenly, a feat accomplished via space pants (more on this later), a virtual unweighting would take place, enabling the sore spot to strengthen by slowly replacing the weight.
Lite Run was presented before physicians, clinicians and physical therapists at a conference in 2011; that’s when the direction of the machine took a turn.
Char was present in the audience. It was clear to many there that the Lite Run wouldn’t be useful for just running injuries — it needed to be in the rehab world. “All of us were saying, ‘Rehab, rehab, rehab!’” Char recounted. Lite Run was “just a prototype” at that point, but she advocated diligently for more: “I talked it through with them,” seeing potential for the system to be used in the home.
When Char started therapy with Josh, she mentioned the Lite Run to the Bensons. “Char told me a couple weeks into therapy that she was doing something, but couldn’t tell us what,” Josh said. Not only did she have a hard time explaining what the Lite Run was built to do, she was sworn to secrecy for the time being.
About a year after Josh got out of the hospital, they got a call from Char. She was ready to bring them in for a session with the Lite Run. The necessary procedures were secured, like patenting, and permission was obtained to bring Josh in. Working with Lite Run, though, has “been totally outside of therapy hours,” Char said, for her and for the family.
The first time he saw the Lite Run, Josh was surprised. “You look at it, and it doesn’t look like much.” Then he suited up.
The Lite Run differs from other therapy tools in a few ways. Instead of strapping to the pelvis or sidling into bionic braces, the Lite Run utilizes pants made of the same material used for astronaut suits: hence, space pants. That’s how the air pressure is distributed evenly. The pants are made of two layers, and the air fills the in-between space. As a result, a patient’s weight can be reduced by 50 percent, which takes the weight-pressure off the patient’s hurt spot. The pants are hooked up to walker-like structure that has wheels. Using a screen on the walker, the physical therapist increases or decreases the pounds of air filling the pants. The walker tracks the amount of feet walked, the amount of time spent in the Lite Run and is equipped with brakes.
In Josh’s case, the Lite Run works with the muscle he has already gained back while removing the pressure from his knees, where he has less strength. It removes the pressure enough so he can initialize movement, but not so much that he isn’t still developing strength in the weaker parts of his legs.
Despite the initial trepidation over the look of the machine, Josh said, “It felt really good (to work with the Lite Run) because I hadn’t been able to stand up that long for a long time. … I wasn’t getting tired where I’d have to sit down.”
Watching Josh walk with Lite Run was huge for his parents. Dave saw the difference right away compared to the leg braces and arm crutches that had been used in previous therapy sessions. While Josh would tire out quickly during those times, he went “1500 feet the first time and never broke a sweat. That was great, watching.”
“Gave us a lot of hope, that’s for sure,” Josh added.
To understand the magnitude of walking 1500 feet, you’ve got to get an understanding of where Josh started from.
One of the first things Josh asked the doctor when he was airlifted to North Memorial was about driving, Marie recalled. “He said something about driving. Something like, ‘Can I drive?’ Then she (the doctor) said, ‘No, honey, you’re going to be paralyzed.’” Marie dropped to the floor when the doctor uttered those words so casually. Josh, though, rose above it. He called his mom over and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll walk. I’ll walk again.”
Marie said, “I remember thinking, ‘Okay. If he can do this, I can do it.’”
Josh had to start at the very beginning again. “He pretty much had to start over on learning on how to do everything,” Marie said. Those first few therapy sessions went back to the basics: going from laying down to sitting up, lifting up his head, all those things taken for granted. He worked at those things, all without the use of his abs, as he had on a full-chest brace to inhibit spinal movement.
As Josh learned about life after the accident, the community showed up in big ways. Not only did people — friends, family, teammates — show up to the hospital, they provided for the family at home, too. The Hinckley-Finlayson football team installed a ramp that was donated at the Benson’s home, others lined up a benefit, car washes, a silent auction; food was brought from unexpected and unfamiliar people. “We still have pots and pans we want to bring back,” Josh said. “A lot of people just dropped stuff off and we don’t know who did it.”
One night, Josh even got to go with his football team from high school, his dad and Char to a Gopher football game. They sat right behind the goalposts. He was still in his back brace at the hospital, but the doctors gave the OK for him to head off for the night with Char along to help with anything that could have come up.
With many of the basic needs covered by the overwhelming support of the community, there was still a lot to be done. “He’s the one who has to fight the most,” Marie said.
Early therapy was essential to Josh healing well, to gain back as much movement as he could. “They wanted me to do a bunch of therapies because if you do as much as you can right away, you get more back, supposedly.”
The movement Josh has thus far gained back has come slowly. “Little by little.” It started with his right foot, when he felt the water and its temperature in a shower. From there, he’s gained some feeling back in his legs and is able to lift them to his chest. Each movement gained back is a small victory to be celebrated. His parents document with pictures and videos, posting them to Facebook so people stay updated.
These developments don’t come without pain, though. “There would be times he would be curled up in the fetal position, he hurt so bad,” David said. His pain level is sometimes met with doubt in the ER — some would say he was “drug seeking.”
That’s frustrating and hard for Josh’s parents, who know their son is in real pain. One doctor told him he only needed to visit his happy place and he’d feel better.
The bouts of intense pain are followed up, usually, with another movement regained. And so, the Bensons wait them out and hope for the best.
Thankfully, Josh is built of gumption and is a survivor. Char, though she isn’t his full-time therapist anymore, has consistently been encouraged by Josh’s progress. “He shouldn’t be doing anything, right? But he can,” she said. “You’re only limited by your motivation. It’s neat to see him push through … and adapt to his environment.”
When working during regular therapy sessions with parallel bars, braces and crutches, his strength is quickly sapped. “In the Lite Run, though, he has no pain,” Char said.
After his third session with the Lite Run, where he walked for 67 minutes straight, Josh expounded on this. “I just walked three times (what he would do in a normal session), and I’m not sore, I’m not tired, really.”
Only a couple of weeks before Josh’s third session, the Lite Run was FDA approved. That means the team behind it can seek investors and start manufacturing the machines on a larger scale. It can gain more traction and awareness in the medical field. There’s a real chance now, too, that Josh can get set up with a home system. Maybe someday, he won’t need the support system. Right now, it’s a day at a time.
These days, the Bensons find that their world has grown a little larger since Josh’s accident.
Buttons and posts with blue symbols, the width of doorways — things that made up the white noise in the background of everyday scenery suddenly took on great importance. When looking for restaurants or movie theaters, parking spaces had to be considered, as well as corridors and seating. Outings take a little more planning and have to be held loosely for last-minute changes.
They’ve met a lot of people along their journey who have impacted them and changed their perspective. Not only celebrities, like Adrian Peterson, but the people who have come into their moments of being, a phrase Virginia Woolf use to describe our most human moments, the unexpected shoots of pain and beauty alike. It’s people like the boy who shared a suite with Josh in the hospital, the nurses who drank the protein shakes Josh didn’t want; people like Char, who helped Marie and Dave understand a little bit of what Josh was going through. And then it’s paying forward what they have learned from all these people, like a man who was also paraplegic asked of them in the hospital, after he talked through things with Josh.
Right now, too, Josh is racing over at Ogilvie Raceway. After the accident, his parents mentioned during an interview on the news that he always wanted to race. A woman he had never met made it happen and then later set him up with his own car. She let him race in her car for a benefit and Josh was hooked. “I loved it,” he said. “It’s the speed.”
He’s in his second year of racing, having done the first year at Princeton and then moving to the Ogilvie track for this season.
His parents sometimes get flack for letting Josh race, but the smile they see on Josh’s face make the hard work put into the car over the week worth it. “I love Saturdays,” Dave said, referring to the day Ogilvie races happen.
Josh cast a doubtful eye to his dad, “Yeah, but by Saturday night when you’ve got to tarp the car …” Well, I guess that part usually solicits one or two complaints.
At this point, Josh doesn’t plan on giving up racing anytime soon, though in the future, he’d like to go to college.
None of the Bensons remember the road name that Josh was on anymore. It’s one of those things that someone could say the name of, and they’d say, “Oh yeah,” or “No.” Only Josh and his dad have been out to the place the accident happened. Marie has no desire to see it.
“It doesn’t feel like three years, but yet it feels like six years,” Josh reflected.
It’s a “long road” and “not an easy one,” in Marie’s words.
David added that through and despite the challenges, the tight-knit family has grown closer.
There’s a whole life ahead of Josh, and none of them are entirely sure the details of it, but they are sure Josh will meet it with the same resolve and determination he has tackled everything that has come his way in life. All that, dipped in the hope that keeps us all on course.
The Bensons want to extend their thanks to the community in Hinckley and the surrounding area for all the support that has been shown to them.