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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strongman Sells Determination in Spinal Clinic

MTValentin Dikul, who recovered from a broken back, discussing his rehabilitation plans with the mother of a patient at his clinic.
Sometimes life's tragic events can result in life's most triumphant moments.

In 1962, when Valentin Dikul was performing a circus routine in Kaunas, Lithuania, a cable on his trapeze snapped, sending him plummeting 15 meters to the floor and breaking his back. Doctors told him that he would never regain the use of his legs. He was 16 years old.

Dikul had always dreamed of becoming a circus performer, and he was determined to get back on his feet and return to his passion. Immediately after his release from the hospital, he began a rigorous self-imposed rehabilitation program, often passing out from exhaustion on the floor of the gym.

After six grueling years, what seemed impossible was becoming a reality: Dikul was able to rise unaided from his wheelchair and walk across a room in a series of shuffling baby steps.

Today, more than four decades after the accident, Dikul is back in the big top, this time as a dumbbell-juggling, iron-bending strongman with several Guinness records to his credit. But his recovery has enabled him to do more than simply return to the circus. Now, as one of Russia's leading authorities on treating spinal injuries, he serves as the director of a Moscow clinic group that specializes in the methods he used in his own rehabilitation.

"People come here from all over Russia and all over the world," Dikul said, sitting behind his desk at the Valentin Dikul Center, located in Ostankino. Although dressed in a doctor's uniform, he looks every inch the circus strongman, from a massive chest and shoulders to a craggy face framed by a flowing white beard. His phone rings constantly: a bedridden man from Saratov wanting help to start walking again, a German doctor checking up on a patient he sent to the clinic, a New York woman whose son was recently injured.

According to Dikul, the waiting list for his clinics is extensive: There are more than 136,000 applications on file from patients representing 32 countries.

"Not everyone who comes here will walk again," Dikul said. "But everyone will improve. If we can't make them fully mobile, they will at least be a great deal more self-sufficient than they would have been otherwise."

The heart of Dikul's method is not healing the spine itself, but rather teaching healthy nerves and muscles to compensate for those that no longer function properly. As the patient embarks on a rigorous physical therapy program, his body learns to reroute nerve impulses to healthy muscle groups, creating greater freedom of movement.

"Medically speaking, it is possible," said Abdullah Dovlatov, a specialist in spinal injuries at Moscow's Psychiatric Hospital No. 12. "There are passive muscles in the body that can be taught to pick up the slack if other muscles are rendered inoperable, as in the case of a spinal injury." Dovlatov noted that the severity of the injury has a great deal to do with how completely a patient may recover.

Dikul is quick to point out the differences between his method and those that are frequently used in other parts of the world.

"In the West, they supply invalids with all sorts of gadgets that help them better interact with their surroundings," he said. "What we do is help the patient restore his own natural body movements."

Although his technique requires a great deal of time, energy and willpower -- patients spend anywhere from three months to a year at his clinics and exercise on specially developed machines for up to five hours a day -- Dikul can point to some impressive results to keep participants in his program motivated.

"In the past 10 years, more than 7,000 people who were not able to walk left my clinics on their own two feet," he said.

At first glance, the physical therapy room at Dikul's Ostankino clinic resembles any other gym: the same smell of sweat, the same clanking of iron mixed in with the groans of people pushing their bodies to the limit. Closer examination, however, reveals that many of those straining on the clinic's vast array of specialized machines have canes, crutches and wheelchairs nearby to help them move from one piece of equipment to the next.

Irina, 41, a doctor who has been suffering from a degenerative muscular disease since her early 20s, said she prefers Dikul's method to the many that she has tried over the years.

"I've been sick for a long time, so I don't expect immediate results," said Irina, who has been at the clinic for several months. "But I do feel more in control of my recovery," she said, adding that her favorite exercises are the aqua aerobics that she performs several times a week at the clinic's pool.

Another of the clinic's patients, Nikolai Verenko, 24, is rehabilitating himself from extensive leg and spinal injuries he sustained after falling out of a fifth-story window.

"All of this exercise was brutal at first," he said. "Now I'm getting used to it. I feel like a gladiator-in-training."