Outdoors Blog

Once-paralyzed doctor on climbing Borah: 'A lot of suffering involved'

Jon Myers, a physician at St. Luke’s Magic Valley, climbed Borah Peak to raise money to purchase medical equipment that the Twin Falls area lacks.  His team tweeted the climb.
Jon Myers, a physician at St. Luke’s Magic Valley, climbed Borah Peak to raise money to purchase medical equipment that the Twin Falls area lacks. His team tweeted the climb. Twitter screenshot

UPDATE: Twin Falls physician Jon Myers reached the summit of Idaho’s tallest mountain — Borah Peak — on Wednesday in a fundraising effort for new medical equipment.

Myers, who was once paralyzed from the neck down and told he wouldn’t walk again, had to fight through lingering paralysis in some parts of his body and the pain caused by walking to complete the climb.

He and his team left the Borah trailhead at 3 a.m. Wednesday and returned at 1 a.m. Thursday -- a 22-hour round trip.

"There was a lot of suffering involved," Myers said. "The best part of the whole experience for me was just having my teammates give me all the support they did. It really was amazing. I had this huge group of people who could have done that climb in nine hours round trip basically make sure I was safe, and they never complained. It was really touching to see them help me the way they did."

Myers expected a grueling trip but didn't plan on finishing in the dark.

"It was sort of disheartening ... seeing the sun setting," he said. "I thought, 'I can't believe we're going to be using our headlights twice.' "

Toward the end, Myers was collapsing onto the ground at rest breaks, he said.

"At that point, there's nothing you can do -- just keep going," he said.

Read more about his quest below.

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Jon Myers was told he wouldn’t walk again after a car crash 17 years ago.

On Wednesday, the 39-year-old will try to walk to the top of Borah Peak — the tallest mountain in Idaho at 12,662 feet.

Myers, a physician at St. Luke’s Magic Valley, is climbing the mountain to raise money to purchase a key piece of equipment that the Twin Falls area lacks. He has regained his ability to walk but he still has significant limitations and expects to endure a lot of pain and a slower-than-most pace to reach his goal.

“While I’m grateful I can walk and I like to challenge myself, walking is a very difficult task for me,” Myers said. “If you were to see me walk down the street, you’d stare. I walk very abnormally.”

Myers was scheduled to begin his hike at 3 a.m. Wednesday at the Borah Peak trailhead (it’s a 3.5-mile hike to the peak with 5,262 feet of elevation gain). That’s several hours earlier than most people start to account for the slow pace he expects and try to avoid any late-afternoon weather issues. His team plans to live tweet the climb at @borah4balance.

The goal of the trip is to raise money for the Neurocom Balance Master System, which costs $125,000. The total raised was over $112,000 at last report.

Myers is a rehabilitation physician. The Balance Master, which is available in Boise and Salt Lake City, uses sensors and mechanisms to quantify a patient’s balance, Myers said, and help with treatment.

“It’s really the standard of care in the field of balance,” Myers said. “When I came to Twin Falls seven years ago from the Midwest ... I always knew it was something we needed to get here. I put it pretty high on my priority list. We’ve been saving and after four or five years we have a whopping $20,000. I realized if this is ever going to happen, we’re going to have to do some sort of fundraiser.”

I spoke to Myers on Tuesday, shortly before he left to camp at the trailhead. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Q: You were once paralyzed. What happened?

A: “About three weeks before I was set to start medical school in 1999, I was in a rollover car accident. I had a cervical spinal cord injury — in layman’s term, I broke my neck. I was paralyzed from the neck down. I was told initially I wouldn’t walk again. I was very lucky. I got the right surgery at the right time, had a great experience from a rehab standpoint, regained the ability to walk and went on to medical school. I deferred a year.

“I still am partially paralyzed. I have certain parts of my body that don’t work. I started walking after three, three and a half, months. I used a wheelchair for about two years. When you recover from an injury like that, you can walk maybe 5 feet before you need a break. It took several years for me to get to a point where I was able to functionally walk around the community and not depend on a wheelchair.

“I still have residual paralysis in my hands. I can’t open my hands all the way. And then I have a little more paralysis in my left leg. I don’t have any movement in my left lower leg. I have decreased sensation everywhere below my chest.”

Q: How did the injury affect your goal to become a doctor?

A: “It definitely limited my choices. I knew a surgical specialty was out of the question because of my hands. There were certain things that weren’t going to work for me, and that’s fine. It turns out the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation would have been a great choice before my injury but I didn’t even know it existed. It was a good fit for me and my personality, even injury aside. But having the experience I did ... it’s proven to be a real asset to me in my career.”

Q: Having been through it, what are those conversations like with people facing similar injuries?

A: “It’s a lot easier for me than it is for most people just because I know what it’s like to be on the other side, on the other end of those discussions. ... I’ve been through that. I’ve dealt with those frustrations. Not all the time, but most of the time patients appreciate when I can share my story. It sort of validates what they’re going through and helps build trust with patients.”

Q: Why Borah?

A: “At dinner with friends, one of my friends said he was going to climb Mt. Borah. I’d heard about it. I know a lot of people do it and it’s a pretty attainable goal but I remember thinking that would be something I’d never be interested in doing. ... That started bouncing around in my head — that would be a Herculean effort for me to accomplish something like that. There was a discussion at St. Luke’s about how can we get this device here. We’re still having to send patients to Boise or Salt Lake. It popped in my head and I said to the group, ‘What if I climb Mt. Borah?’ Everybody looked at me like I had three heads because they all know how poorly I walk and how hard it is for me. Also, the proposition of a guy with multiple impairments potentially falling off the mountain scared people, too. I said I will commit to doing it but only if the (rehab) team will commit to doing it. The team was totally on board. If I did this, maybe it would inspire people to donate. Here’s a guy who has overcome a lot of adversity and is doing this not for himself but to help the community — because I assure you, I have zero interest in seeing the top of Mt. Borah. ... It really started snowballing. We partnered with the St. Luke’s Foundation to help with the fund-raising efforts. Donations go through the foundation and are tax-deductible. We started six weeks ago and we’re at $115,000. It’s been incredible.”

Q: Where’d the money come from?

A: “This really demonstrated to me the power of social media. Early on, an article was written and uploaded to Facebook. ... We started getting donations from all over the country. ... We’ve received several donations from corporate sponsors in Twin Falls. First Federal Bank is the lead corporate sponsor. Rehab Systems, which also is in Boise, (is a sponsor). One other tremendous source has been St. Luke’s itself. The employees at St. Luke’s have given a substantial amount of money, as well as the physicians.

“... Four individuals from Rehab Systems will be joining us. The other thing Rehab Systems has done is fit me with a new brace. I wear a brace on my (left) leg. They’ll be the pit crew if anything goes wrong with my brace.”

Q: What’s your hiking claim to fame?

A: “Before my injury, I actually ran cross country and track in college. I was really into distance and endurance events. I ran a race on the Appalachian Trail and got second place in college. I went to visit Montana and ran the Highline trail (at Glacier National Park). I used to be in really great shape, but the injury knocked me down a few pegs.

“This is just a real daunting task. It takes the average person 10 hours to do this climb. I’m slower than average. I’m thinking it’s going to be more like 15 or 20. It’s really hard to train for something like this. I’ve been training for eight weeks, multiple hikes a week on top of my regular exercise regimen — a little weightlifting but mostly swimming. The longest hike I’ve done is 3.5 hours. There’s going to be a lot of suffering (Wednesday). There’s really no two ways about it. I’ve told everyone, we have a big group of therapists — 29 people — going. I’ve told everybody it’s going to be a blast Tuesday night when we’re all camping out but I’m not planning on having any fun on Wednesday.”

Q: Where have you been hiking?

A: “In Twin Falls, we have the (Snake River) canyon. The hike that was 3.5 hours was in and around the canyon, up and down different grades. The canyon is 500 feet deep. ... Physically, it’s really hard on me just because my biomechanics are so bad. It puts a lot of strain on my joints and pelvis. When I’ve done these hikes, I’m usually pretty physically destroyed for two to three days. Needless to say, I’m expecting that times 10. I’ve taken off the rest of the week. I’ve told my wife, you’re going to have to solo parent for a couple days.”

Q: Do you worry that you won’t make it to the top?

A: “No. I’m apprehensive because I know it’s going to be really hard. I’ve never really quit anything in my life. That’s not what I do. I will crawl to the top if I have to. I literally will. Really, the only thing that could prevent me from getting to the top is a bad injury or severe weather that forces the whole group to turn around.”

Q: Does your condition continually improve?

A: “I have not had any new neurological return since about nine months after the injury. From a movement standpoint, what I had at nine months is what I have today. I have made substantial improvements since then. A lot of that is adapting to the circumstances and getting stronger. ... The only challenge for me is the training, which is the hiking, comes at a pretty significant expense, which is the toll on my joints and my body. Three or four weeks into training I thought: ‘I don’t know if this is even helping. Maybe I should show up on the day of the hike and take my lumps.’ A week and a half ago I broke a rib — I slipped and fell. I’ll be hiking with a broken rib. I have noticed improvements in my strength and walking but it has come at a cost.”

How to contribute

You can donate toward a Balance Master for St. Luke’s Magic Valley at borah4balance.com. The website includes a PDF with more information about the device and an update on the fund-raising total.