‘In constant pursuit of excellence’

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November 2001: Baker walks after two years of therapy.

Motocross champion and mom conquer paralysis to bike across the United States.

By Vicki Godal/Special to The Malibu Times

By the age of three, Aaron Baker was hooked on two wheels. At five, Baker began racing. His dream was to be a professional motorcycle racer. Winning hundreds of races by 1995, Baker, who grew up in Central California, was well on his way. That year, he won amateur racing’s most prestigious title at the Amateur National Championships. His dream seemed secured in February 1999, at age 20, when Baker made the Suzuki professional racing team.

In May 1999, Baker was training in Simi Valley for the AMA National Motocross Series. On the biggest jump, Baker’s motorcycle malfunctioned. It lost speed at a critical point in the launch. Airborne at 80 feet, Baker shot over the front of the motorcycle. Hitting the ground headfirst, Baker snapped his neck. “From the moment I hit the ground, I knew,” Baker recalled in a recent interview. “I felt my neck break. I actually heard it break. It echoed in my head.”

Baker was flown to Los Robles Regional Hospital in Thousand Oaks. There, a team of neurosurgeons fused the broken vertebrae. In the post surgery conference, the neurosurgeons told Baker’s mother, Laquita Conway, the prognosis-Baker would have a “one in a million” chance of ever feeding himself again. “I shot up out of my chair and said, ‘you’re not telling this to my son,'” Conway said. To make certain her wishes were complied with, Baker’s mother stayed in the hospital with him.

“For the next month, I met every new nurse that came to his room before they went in. I would tell them, he’s asking a lot of questions. Tell him anything is possible. That we don’t know,” Conway said. “He didn’t know for three years the [real] prognosis.”

After one month, Baker was transferred to Northridge Hospital. In the Rehabilitation Unit, with the prognosis still unknown to him, Baker began therapy. He focused on working for return of function rather than learning the adaptive skills necessary to a severely disabled person. Repetitive motions gradually helped turn minute muscular impulses into movement.

On Baker’s first-year, post injury anniversary, though impaired and confined to a wheelchair, the insurance company deemed Baker rehabilitated and stopped covering any further treatment. What followed became the darkest period of Baker’s life.

“When the insurance company claimed that Aaron had reached his peak, he became suicidal. He knew that his body was just beginning to respond to therapy and here they were saying this was it,” Conway said. “I had exhausted all my financial resources by year two. Aaron and I lived a very meager existence on his disability payments. Still do. And we weren’t even close to where Aaron knew he could be physically.”

Baker and his mother began to do therapy at their apartment’s swimming pool and small gym. (Conway, who imported Asian artifacts, lived with daughter Arielle, Baker’s sister, in Corral Canyon before the accident. She has since quit her career and moved to the Valley in order to help her son.) Hundreds of phone calls later, a friend told them about a clinical exercise physiologist named Taylor-Kevin Isaacs. A former professor of kinesiology at California State University at Northridge, physical disabilities and musculoskeletal injuries were Isaac’s forte. (Isaacs is also on the board of the Jesse Billauer Spinal Cord Injury Research Foundation.)

“We needed someone with in-depth knowledge of repairing a catastrophically injured, nonfunctional body. I called Taylor and now we’ve been with [him] everyday since for the last four years,” Conway said.

Isaacs designed a rehabilitation program specific to Baker’s precise physical condition including a nutritional program and trained Conway to assist her son. After many months, Baker’s muscles were strong enough for him to hold a one-pound dumbbell.

“At one point, I thought we would have to give up Taylor because we had no money,” Conway said. “From the time of Aaron’s injury until now, between the hospital bills and therapy, we are at $2.1 million [in costs]. But Taylor insisted on continuing his work with Aaron, without pay. That’s when we really became a team.”

I know that there are people in debilitating situations whose lives could be improved. We want to somehow be able to facilitate changes,” Conway said. “And so this makes our experience make sense. We believe this catastrophic injury happened in order for us to find our purpose.”

That purpose is the Aaron Baker Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to change perceptions regarding the ongoing treatment and management of catastrophic injury and chronic conditions. The foundation will raise funds to build a state-of-the-art facility providing treatment plans to help those who need this specialized care and to provide individual grants. (The foundation is currently waiting for 501-C3 nonprofit status designation from the IRS.)

The first way they plan to raise awareness for their foundation is a cross-country tandem bike ride. In March 2005, Baker and his mother will ride 3,180 miles from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. Griffen Bikes is designing a tandem bike for them. Baker and Conway train seven days a week for the ride. (The two have already completed the 2003 L.A. Marathon/Bike Tour.)

“Aaron is an athlete, albeit disabled …” Conway said of the preparation for the ride. “An athlete’s mind is fueled by excess-excessive drive, excessive determination … in constant pursuit of excellence.”

As for his outlook on life since his accident, Baker said, “This accident has given me a perspective on life that is invaluable. It opened my mind to what life’s all about-unity, love, compassion, sharing, helping.”

This accident has given me an opportunity to do something that’s far greater than what I initially set out to do, that was to win motorcycle races,” he added. “It takes something like that to hit you and shake you and make you see what life’s really about.”

More information on the Aaron Baker Foundation can be found at www.aaronbakers.com.