Doctor tells paralyzed Balletto he will walk again

SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — A neurologist who specializes in spinal cord injuries told retired boxing champion Gary Balletto that he is “going to walk again.”

The Cranston resident, who broke six vertebrae last summer in a fall from a pull-up bar, relayed the prognosis during one of his daily, grueling workouts at the Seekonk YMCA. Between lifting weights and peddling a bike that stimulates leg muscles into motion, Balletto told us a doctor from the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury shared his opinion with him.

“He told me that you’re going to walk again, and nobody ever said that,” Balletto said. “He said athletes have a higher chance of recovery because they know how to train, they know how to work their body.”

After a 32-3 record, 26 knockouts and two lightweight titles, Balletto acknowledged he can push himself pretty hard.

“I’m not taking what he said for granted. If they ask me to do 30 minutes on a bike, I do an hour. If they ask me to spend an hour in the standing frame, I do two hours.”

Then, he guided his chair to a weight-lifting machine and pulled down 190 pounds to his chest a few times with his 160-pound body.

“I feel it in my arms, my biceps mostly. It takes everything out of me,” he said, with sweat on his brow. “But this is a team effort. I can’t do it without my trainers, my physical therapists, my doctors and especially my wife and family.”

He’s come a long way from last summer, when a pull-up bar that he wedged between a couple of trees in his backyard cracked while Balletto was doing a spin from a hand stand. He landed on his head, breaking six vertebrae including the one closest to his head. He was told most people don’t survive that type of break, and the ones who do are left with virtually no ability to move their body.

Now, Balletto has feeling from his head to his toes, can move his upper body and is confident a special type of bike and more hard work will bring his legs back to life.

“I feel it in my body. I feel it. I’m going to recover.”

The Seekonk YMCA is one of the only gyms available to the public in the region that has a Functional Electrical Stimulation bike. Balletto credits that machine, which sends electronic impulses to leg muscles to get them moving, with helping him rebuild his muscles. The YMCA’s Luca Del Borgo said the FES machine also helps stroke patients and people with diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis.

“It’s such a nice feeling when you can’t move your legs and to have them moving,” Balletto said while his legs were churning. “I can feel the blood flowing through my legs right now. People who are in my situation need to get down here and do this.”

That point reminded Balletto of the recent accident at the Dunkin Donuts Center involving the Hair Hang act. Nine performers ended up in the hospital, including two with spinal cord injuries after the so-called “Human Chandelier” fell to the ground. Balletto wants to talk to the acrobats about what they face as they recover.

“My heart was bleeding about that situation. I felt so terrible because I know how I felt when it first happened to me,” Balletto said. “I would say, never give up hope. Hope is what keeps us moving.”

As he continues his comeback, Balletto remembers what he used to tell himself while training for fights.

“The harder you work, the luckier you get,” he said. “Same thing with spinal cord injuries. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

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