Chris Mason-Hale

Former Western Tech football player Chris Mason-Hale pedals on a stationary bike under the supervision of physical therapist Sarah B. Greenemeier in September of 2009. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / September 8, 2009)

For Chris Mason-Hale, healing comes in very small stages, sometimes so small he can't even see them.

Since suffering a paralyzing spinal cord injury in a Western Tech football game 14 months ago, he has come a long way. But progress is excruciatingly slow for a former star linebacker who cannot walk.

The 17-year-old steadily improved in the months just after the accident - a routine tackle that snapped his neck back, breaking the C-5 vertebra and bruising his spinal cord. He kept improving during inpatient rehabilitation at Kennedy Krieger Institute from January to March.

But by summer, he felt his progress had stalled.

Severe muscle spasms in his legs made it hard to work out. They didn't hurt, but he likened them to a child flailing into a tantrum on the floor, just "without the screaming." He had surgery to insert a device that would deliver medicine directly to his spinal column, but that didn't help, so he had another operation to remove the device. Healing kept him out of rehab until late summer.

When he did try to work out on an elliptical exercise machine, strapped in to hold him upright, a swing in blood pressure brought on nausea and dizziness, something Dr. Daniel Becker, who cares for Mason-Hale at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger, said is common in patients with injuries such as his.

With all of that, Mason-Hale worked out less and less, and the usually upbeat teenager started feeling down.

"Every day was boring," he said. "I needed something to do. Distractions. TV. Computer. Definitely video games. Anything to keep my mind off of myself. Anything to keep me from thinking too much. Most of my [positive] moments were in the movie theater when I was focusing on somebody else's life, and then after the movie, I was like, 'OK, yeah. Back to my life.' "

Compounding his frustration, he watched his friends preparing to go away to college - something he had expected for himself just a year earlier. He had wanted to play college football.

"He's kind of a mellowed-out guy," said Matt Quayle, a Western Tech assistant football coach, "but the friends he does have, a lot of them went away to college, plus a couple of them were getting in football shape, too. It was just tough for him."

When Mason-Hale returned to Kennedy Krieger in late August for outpatient therapy, he was surprised to discover that he had made small but significant improvements.

"I saw stuff that I really hadn't noticed," he said, "because for me, it's always hard to see improvement where I am, as opposed to other people looking in."

Both arms had gotten stronger. The fingers on his right hand could move closer to making a fist, and he could spread that pinkie away from the other fingers. He also had a little more movement in his right leg.

"He has plenty of positives because he has recovered that nicely even without having a true home therapy program since March," Becker said.

"This is something his body did under the least-optimal conditions. I told him, 'You don't even know how much potential you have until you actually start using it.' I think by deploying the whole activity-based program in his home, he could be so much better."

Mason-Hale said he is more motivated to work at home now that his latest stint at Kennedy Krieger has ended.

"Physically, I'm definitely stronger, and I'm more independent than I was before. I can do more for myself, and I don't have to rely on others as much. Just not feeling as needy helps me feel a lot better," said Mason-Hale, who has an easier time transferring from his wheelchair to the car or his bed.

His mother, Aliecia Mason-Hale, said getting back to work at Kennedy Krieger helped her son physically and psychologically.

"He's much perkier," she said. "What I love is they're definitely encouraging him to be much more independent and even in some cases to take charge of some of his well-being, which I appreciate because I'm overwhelmed sometimes."