CARLSBAD, California — In a plain, white clinic at an industrial park in this coastal California town north of San Diego, Brandi Todd is gaining ground on a ghost: Her own lifeless body from the waist down.
Todd is undergoing physical therapy at Project Walk after a devastating knife attack in a Stephenville park in March that left her paralyzed.
And Todd is starting to believe she just might walk again.
She was skeptical when she arrived a month ago, but says doubts began to disappear as her body began to surprise her.
"Take that, severed spinal cord!" Todd said as he continued working with her trainer, who has a master's degree in exercise physiology.
Doctors say the blade of her attacker's knife severed 90 percent of Todd's spinal cord. The assault came from out of nowhere as she played with her kids at the park.
After therapy at Project Walk, Todd can now stand and steady herself for a few seconds. She gets help, but says each day brings a little breakthrough; something she couldn't do or feel the day before.
"That's a huge thing to be able to feel the muscles working," Todd said, "because when I first came out here, I couldn't feel them."
Project Walk is a non-profit corporation based on the idea that intense, repetitive exercise can improve mobility for spinal cord patients.
"We really got push-back in the begining, when we first started," said Eric Harness, who founded the clinic 10 years ago. "We were selling false hope; we were snake oil salesmen."
Many doctors still criticize Harness, but he says others have started referring patients.
"Everybody that rolls in here is not going to walk out of here," he concedes. "But we're giving them that chance that maybe they could."
Harness said studies with rats indicate a damaged nervous system might sprout new pathways to send signals to muscles.
"It's just a theory," he admits, but said more research is under way.
Meanwhile, Project Walk has a five-month backlog of injured people trying to get in, and a growing list of believers.
None of this is covered by insurance. Therapy costs $100 an hour. So you have families coming from all over the world, spending thousands of dollars a month, on hope.
A car crash in Dallas last year left Kendall Hall a quadriplegic. Doctors warned her parents that — at best — she might be able to feed herself.
She's moved far beyond that since coming to the clinic in March, moving around with the help of a walker.
"It's hard," Hall said, "but it feels good, because this is my ultimate goal."
And Brandi Todd recognizes that she has a long road ahead.
"I didn't walk in here and they said, 'You're going to walk.' They never promised me that," Todd said. "They only promised to help me work as hard as I could."
And that's the promise Brandi Todd says she'll keep on behalf of all the North Texans who've raised thousands of dollars to give her this shot to chase that ghost.