Saturday, May 8, 2010

No More Therapy Dogs: Bring on the Hot Therapy Girlfriend

They had the day off, and the eight camp counselors were taking a break from a canoe trip down the Saco River in southern Maine last July. One of them, Zack Weinstein, began jogging downhill about 15 feet from shore. When Zack reached the water, he stepped into the locked hands of his friend, who gave Zack a boost as he jumped into the air.

It was the last time Zack had control over his own body.

Meeting Zack, 20, for the first time, you're not really sure how to greet him. He uses the controls on his motorized wheelchair to approach you. He smiles. You smile. Then he nimbly stretches out both hands to shake your hand.

It's a soft handshake, one that he cannot feel. But going through the motion breaks down a barrier.

Beside his bed is a laptop computer and a headset that allows him to provide voice commands. From that computer he has started an unusual process: healing by blog. Zack started an online journal in July while at a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. The postings, available to anyone with Internet access at, provide a raw look at the joy of opening a candy wrapper again and the frustration of not having control over bowel movements.

Some site visitors have injuries, some none at all. Many of them Zack doesn't even know. One person had a similar spinal cord injury a year before, and he's now back at college. He and Zack e-mail and talk on the phone.

''It's hard enough for me anyways," Zack said. ''I can't imagine what it would be like without all the technology."
'Standard issue girlfriend'
''I truly believe that every patient should be provided with a standard issue girlfriend," he wrote last year. ''Maybe the patient could choose the type of girlfriend that they would feel most comfortable with. For example: hair color, age, height, race, nationality, size of . . . um . . . well use your imagination. Obviously I would choose a blond, 22-year-old, 5 ft. 5 white girl from England."

Zack met Anna-Maija Webb at the summer camp. They were both counselors and connected over similar interests in drama and music.

They both took it as a summer fling (''I didn't even know her last name," Zack said). After camp, Zack was going back to college and Anna-Maija (pronounced: Mai-ya), who had just graduated from drama school in England, was going to be a nanny in the United States for a few years before going back.

Three weeks after they met, though, Zack was paralyzed.

Did Anna-Maija feel like she had to stick around?

''Not at all," she said.

Her brother was living in Atlanta, 15 minutes from the Shepherd Center, where Zack went for several weeks for rehabilitation. So she stayed with Zack. One week became two, then three. Next thing she knew, she was living with Zack's family in Needham.

''I don't know. It's really strange," Anna-Maija said. ''I don't even know what to say about it. I hadn't planned it."

She bristles at the notion that she enjoys taking care of him.

''I hate the whole mothering aspect, and it has nothing to do with it," she said. ''He gives me as much back as I give him."

Their dates are low-key, they say, and often consist of dinner and a movie.

They watched all of the Oscar-nominated movies, and she tries to persuade Zack to watch ''Desperate Housewives" with her.

''We're serious about each other," she said. ''But we're practical as well."

They're still at the stage in a relationship where they stare into each other's eyes with dreamy smiles.

''She still thinks I'm cute," he said, offering a big, toothy smile.

''Yes. I do," she said.


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