As Jesse Reising ’11 gritted his way through a series of one-armed pushups against a training table last Thursday, the other student-athletes in the room lingered to watch him.
“Have you ever worked that hard in a day?” head football trainer David DiNapoli asked one. “I haven’t. He can’t even lift his arm, and look at him.”
Reising was doing the pushups with his bad arm — the one that bore the brunt of the damage when he collided headfirst with Harvard’s Gino Gordon during The Game last November.
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He and rehabilitation coordinator Kai Aboulian have been doing those pushups for months. When they started, Reising’s arm was so unstable that he would slip and almost accidentally hit Aboulian in the face. Now, although Reising grunts and grimaces with exertion throughout the exercise, he can struggle through 30 at a time with Aboulian’s help.
Four months after he exited the last Harvard game of his collegiate career on a stretcher, Reising still has no feeling or motor function in his right deltoid, the major shoulder muscle that controls much of the arm’s movement. Reising also has limited movement in his biceps and — when he removes his sling — his right arm hangs limp at his side.
Reising will undergo surgery on April 27 to rebuild the nerves leading to his deltoid. The decision to operate comes so long after nerve injuries like Reising’s because doctors must wait months before swelling recedes enough to make necessary tests possible. Despite the wait and the battery of examinations Reising has already undergone, surgeons say that the procedure will not resolve his status. Full recovery from a nerve graft requires three years of physical therapy, at the end of which the arm still will not function as it did before the initial injury. Though Reising is younger and more active than most people who suffer injuries similar to his, doctors estimate that he will never be able to lift his arm higher than his shoulder.
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“Never before in my life have I confronted something that I couldn’t have, no matter how hard I worked for it or how badly I wanted it,” Reising said. “But I think I will come out of this a better person, because to struggle through and to overcome adversity is to lead a more complete life.”
Reising has approached his recovery with a matter-of-fact attitude and a ferocious work ethic, friends and coaches said. He logs up to four hours in the gym daily, and has long since stopped taking pain medication. Through it all, Aboulian said, Reising has never complained — even during the one-armed pushups.
During those exercises, Aboulian supported the linebacker just enough that he did not collapse. The exercise is designed so that the mind thinks the body is about to fall, and so sends particularly strong signals to the muscle.
“It’s almost a survival instinct,” Reising said, adding that his workouts with Aboulian are more difficult than anything he ever did with the football team or in his summers with the Marine Corps officer candidate school.
As Reising worked his way through sets of 30 pushups, his grunts increased in volume and his arms began to shake. Still, Aboulian did not ease up the pace. If he thought Reising had dipped less than halfway down on a pushup, Aboulian would make him start over.
Reising continued without complaint.
“You tell him to do an exercise once, and he does it three times,” Aboulian said. “He never asks questions, he never argues. He wants to do more.”
Reising complains as little about his medical discharge from the Marine Corps officer training program as he does about his strenuous workouts. The native of Decatur, Ill., had spent the past two summers training with the Marines, and planned to enter the force immediately after graduation. But his injury ended that plan, and Reising had to refocus on finding a job.
“The Marines were an incredibly big part of my identity,” Reising said. “There’s no question that that is what I was and that is what I wanted to be. But ever since the Marines was taken from me, I’ve had to think hard about what drives me deep down.”
Reising likely would have had his pick of career opportunities. The most decorated athlete on the football team this year, he is also a double major in economics and political science and was named a semifinalist for the William Campbell award, the National Football Foundation’s highest academic honor.
But, although he cannot serve in the armed forces due to his injury, Reising said he is focusing on jobs that, like the Marine Corps, allow him to serve the country in a competitive environment.
That focus has led him to choose among options that will likely mean deployment to a war zone overseas — either with the American government or with a military contractor — within a month of graduation.
“I’ve loved my experience here at Yale, but I’m ready to roll my sleeves up and help solve problems,” he said.
Two red-letter days remain before graduation: the due date for Reising’s senior essay — on the politics of the allocation of stimulus funds — and his surgery.
In three weeks, doctors will replace the damaged nerves in Reising’s arm with healthy ones taken from his leg. The nerve graft is necessary for the senior to regain feeling in his deltoid and two smaller muscles in his shoulder: the supraspinatus and infraspinatus.
Doctors decided on the procedure after a number of tests that Reising has traveled across the country to receive in the past four months.
“I think I’ve been poked, prodded and electrocuted more than just about anybody,” Reising said.
The surgery will leave Reising in a condition like that which he was in immediately after The Game. Attaching nerves is not like attaching electrical wires. Reising will have to rehabilitate for months before signals can travel fully through the connections built during the nerve graft. Doctors expect Reising to have feeling in his deltoid 18 months after surgery. The lower parts of his arm should begin to work again during those months, but recovery will take a total of three years.
Reising said he would start that physical therapy as soon as doctors give him the green light after surgery.
“Once you’ve dealt with severe nerve pain, they say pain from surgery is barely noticeable,” he said.
In the weeks leading up to surgery, Reising is working extensively to strengthen his arm. He is making progress — he can now hold his forearm bent at the elbow, something he could not accomplish two weeks ago. During the hours he spends at the gym each day, he lifts weights, does pool exercise and works out with a physical therapist.
“If there is one guy this could happen to, Jesse is one who has a chance of getting better,” said DiNapoli, the trainer, as he watched Reising struggle through a set of exercises Thursday. “This is a kid who puts 100 percent into everything. He works his butt off.”