MINNEAPOLIS - Like many of his 16-year-old classmates Jack Jablonski is learning to drive.
Thursday he took his first trip through the halls of Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in his motorized wheelchair. He displayed the usual student driver anxiety, but significantly, his left hand was running the controls.
It ranked as one of the ups for Jack this past week, the kind of milestone that helps him deal with the downs since he was paralyzed in December during a hockey game.
"You know we met with the doctors this morning and they're blown away by what they're seeing already," says Leslie Jablonski, Jack's mom. "He's just doing things that we didn't think he'd do, so it's exciting."
An even bigger victory came Thursday morning, when Jack used his extended arms and the muscles in his shoulders to steady himself in a seated position during physical therapy.
On the day's first attempt of the day he was able to steady himself in place for 40 seconds, no small feat given he's still weighted down with a 9 pound halo ring attached to his head. Yet by the afternoon Jack was grimacing and gutting it out for nearly five minutes.
Jack has always been a physical over-achiever. Just last hockey season he led his Bantam A team by scoring 50 goals.
Those goals came so easily compared to the effort it takes Jack to lift his left arm just a few inches now.
"All the way to your lap," instructs his physical therapist Cheryl Greely.
"Don't help me," responds Jack, the intensity building on his face. "I want to try it."
Jack's arm quivers, and slowly his hand raises from the mat to his lap. He takes a deep breath as his 13-year-old bother Max offers applause and approval.
The work is hard and also redundant. Jack spends four to five hours a day in physical therapy. But progress is synonymous with hope. "If I'm doing this so quickly and I'm not supposed to be doing this at this time, what could I be doing a month down the road?"
It is of course the question everyone raises, how far can Jack go? There's no easy answer, says Karl Sandin M.D, Sister Kenny's physician-in-chief. "The tissue that's in there in the spinal cord is substantially damaged," he cautions.
Yet Jack has some things in his favor, according to Sandin, including his youth, his athleticism, family support and the psychological rigor he's displayed in therapy. "So it's really our job in rehabilitation to make sure that we are setting up the possibility of every future success that may come to somebody."
But even Jack's good days can quickly turn. Minutes after leaving therapy and returning to his room, Jack is experiencing severe pain in his abdomen and having trouble regulating his temperature. "This is not our favorite time of the day," explains his mom. "The damaged nerves are confused and they send mixed messages and he gets hot and then gets cold."
Nurses bring pills that will help ease his pain. Jack settles back in his chair and looks forward to a few hours of sleep. "I just try to stay calm and relaxed," he says quietly. "Sometimes I get through it easily like that."
Jack's parents still marvel at his strength in such situations. "It's been very courageous over the past five weeks," says Mike Jablonski, Jack's dad.
Leslie Jablonski sees the smile on her son's face when people come to visit, even on days when he's not feeling the best. "I don't think I could be like that," she says. "He's a great kid and I'm so proud of him."
But as usual Jack's little brother Max seems to put I best. "You know, we never lost Jack. His personality and attitude have stayed the same."
If all goes as planned, in a couple of months Jack's doctors will be removing the halo. Soon after, he should be able to move back home and continue his therapy on an outpatient basis.
Jack someday hopes to walk and skate again, but among his short-term goals is to return to Benilde-St. Margaret's this fall to rejoin his class for his junior year of high school.
"Just to try to get back to normal again, so I can be a normal teenage high school kid again," he says.
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)