Using muscle to beat up cerebral palsy

JOHNSTON, RI (WPRI) — Next time you don’t feel like heading to the gym, think about Eric Birnie and what drives him to sweat through his grueling workouts. You won’t be the first he inspires.

Doctors said he would never walk. Guess who was wrong? 26 years ago, his first breath was expected to be his last, after he went eight minutes as a newborn without breathing. What was left was a very agile brain, but a not so able body, riddled by cerebral palsy.

“They said I would probably never walk,” Birnie told us through a computer that translates his typing into speech.

About seven years ago, he came to Brett Polofsky at Next Level Fitness. Polofsky had never worked with a cerebral palsy patient and was leery about Eric getting hurt. But that changed about six months into the workouts, when he noticed lifting Eric was easier.

“And I attributed that to I’m getting in better shape,”  Polofsky said. “But then I realized it was Eric getting stronger and lifting his own body weight.”

Birnie’s doctors realized the weight training was working as well.

“I have definitely proved them wrong,” he said.

Especially when he did what was never expected about two years after his first trip to the gym.

“He took like 10 or 12 steps without falling,” Polofsky said. “It was right before Christmas. I said Eric, this was the best gift you could have ever given me or you.”

Polofsky isn’t the only one watching Eric sweat through everything from pull-ups to leg lifts.

“When we’re working out, three to four people will come up to Eric and tell him how inspiring he is,” Polofsky said. “I heard some who maybe didn’t feel like working out or maybe just came to talk with their friends, that if Eric can do it, they can. He motivates people.”

Eric shrugs off any talk that his hard work is an inspiration, but he doesn’t mind an occasional pat on the back.

“I always just thought I’d do everything I can to improve the quality of my life. I definitely would love to inspire others to try their best,” he said. “Obviously with determination. I do believe anything is possible.”

And his goal is to get even stronger, with no one willing to doubt he will.

“It’s his indomitable spirit to not quit,” Polofsky said. “I really haven’t heard of anyone with cerebral palsy in their 20s starting to walk that haven’t done it before.”

Send your story ideas to Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

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