Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner | Photographed by Vincent Rios
Janne Kouri was flummoxed. Here he was in Southern California, a region
known for health and fitness, yet he couldn’t find a rehabilitation
center that met his needs. In 2006 life changed instantly for Kouri, an
avid athlete and former college football player employed in the digital
entertainment industry. Playing in a beach volleyball tournament in Manhattan
Beach, he took a break between matches to cool off.
As he had done countless times before, Kouri dove through a wave. But this
time, he hit his head on a sandbar, fracturing two vertebrae in his neck.
He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors told him he would
never walk again and had little hope for recovery.
Kouri learned about a type of physical therapy called locomotor training,
which allows paralyzed individuals to practice standing and stepping using
body weight support. Although 5.4 million people live with paralysis in
the U.S., only a handful of facilities in the country offered such therapy.
All were hospital-based, and none of them were located in California.
Kouri and his fiancée (now wife), Susan, moved to Louisville, Kentucky,
for a year so Kouri could receive this therapy. “I had an amazing
recovery,” said Kouri. “I started gaining function again.”
Today he can walk with the assistance of a walker, although he uses a
wheelchair to get around.
Kouri was also distressed to learn insurance typically only covers 31 days
of rehabilitation following a spinal cord injury. He had excellent insurance
through his employer, but he worried about those who did not and could
not afford such an expense.
“It’s not just about walking,” he says.“There are
secondary health consequences to sitting all day without moving around.
It can be life-threatening.”
In 2008 Kouri and Susan opened the non-profit NextStep Fitness in Lawndale.
Catering to individuals with spinal cord injuries, stroke, traumatic brain
injury, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions, the
community-based facility offers locomotor training, neuromuscular electrical
stimulation and other specialized services and equipment.
“This is the first facility of its kind in the U.S.,” says
Kouri, noting private donations subsidize 70% of monthly membership costs.
Fundraising presents a constant challenge given the expense of securing
specialized equipment and activity-based trainers with advanced knowledge
of working with this population.
Active-duty Air Force major Kat Portillo came to NextStep in 2016. She
and her husband, Pavel Ythjall, were in a serious car accident in December
2015. Ythjall broke his neck and skull but eventually recovered. Portillo
was instantly paralyzed from the shoulders down.
“Opening the door to NextStep, we were met by music blasting—loud.
One of the jacked trainers yelled, ‘Welcome, Welcome!’ I smiled
and almost immediately felt at home. I was used to this environment,”
Ythjall wrote for a book he’s composing about the couple’s
NextStep, says Portillo, “is helping me get my neck muscles stronger
and has given me a community of support and friendship. The staff is very
welcoming. They have become friends and a strong source of support. It’s
more like a family.”
Today NextStep has facilities in Atlanta, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Orlando
and Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as Ukraine and New Zealand.
“This is my life’s passion,” says Kouri, who considers
his accident a blessing in disguise. “It’s uplifting and inspiring
to see the results and how we can improve people’s lives. The mental
benefits are unbelievable. Clients are getting back to work, back to college
and living their lives to the fullest.”