Esprit de CORE

Matthew Davies

With the aid of a trainer, Matthew Davies ’84 (in gray) uses a ReWalk exoskeleton to help him stand at his CORE facility.

Matthew Davies ’84

Four days a week for two hours at a time, Matthew Davies ’84 is a client at his own training center, working to stand, pedal a bike, and regain some of the muscle strength he once had.

Located in Longwood, Fla., CORE (Center of Recovery & Exercise) was founded three years ago by Davies and his wife, a former hospital executive. It’s a highly specialized facility and one of the few of its type in the nation to serve clients with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, and other neurological conditions who want to improve their health and ability to be more independent.

In October 2005, the former Colgate soccer player suffered a spinal cord injury in an early morning car accident on a Florida highway. It left him a quadriplegic, and from the time of the accident until early 2011, the bulk of Davies’s hours were spent in a wheelchair.

“I did six months of routine outpatient physical therapy after the accident and found that there really wasn’t a focus on addressing the disability beyond the injury,” he said. “We would focus on range of motion for my arms so I could transfer out of my wheelchair, but there was nothing for my core or legs,” explained Davies, who post-Colgate had run marathons and done biathlons.

Long hours sitting in a wheelchair can cause pressure sores, reduced circulation, muscle atrophy, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain — the effects anyone might suffer if they rarely got off their couch. It wasn’t what Davies wanted.

On a trip to Southern California, Davies and his wife discovered a gym that was doing activity-based training for spinal cord patients — physical therapy concentrating on muscle tone, core strength, lung capacity, and overall health. There wasn’t a similar facility in central Florida, so they opened CORE, which has since attracted clients from Japan, Brazil, Canada, and throughout the United States.

“The realm of treatment for paralysis is evolving so quickly, and we’re committed to staying as up-to-date as possible.”

Today Davies can stand for 45 minutes at a time with some help from a trainer and a balance bar, and he can stand unaided for five minutes. “My abdominals, low back, and legs are engaged, and I can feel that engagement even though I don’t have the [normal] sensory feedback,” explained the 52-year-old, who retired from his job as UnitedHealthcare’s CEO for Central and North Florida after the accident. “Even though my muscles can’t get a signal from my brain, they remember what they’re supposed to be doing when my body’s in a vertical line.”

Among other innovative treatments at CORE is functional electrical stimulation (FES), which leads to increased muscle strength and bone density. Pads placed on the quads, calves, and glutes, for example, cause muscles to contract, helping clients pedal a leg cycle. Electrical stim for his abs helps Davies perform sit-ups and develop core strength. “Now I can reach over with my fork to grab something off a plate and my abs engage so I don’t fall flat into my mashed potatoes.”

Although Davies has given up his 60-hour workweeks (some days he’s too tired to work more than three or four hours), he serves on numerous community boards and is devoted to his role as chairman of the CORE Foundation. The foundation provides financial support to those who can’t afford to train at the facility.

“We’re focusing on expanding our space, we’re evaluating equipment that wasn’t available three years ago — we’re dealing with everything a growing business has to deal with,” Davies said. “The realm of treatment for paralysis is evolving so quickly, and we’re committed to staying as up-to-date as possible.”

— Anne Stein