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Special Report: Zach Knuckey Is Coming Back

Darren Danielson
May 18, 2015 02:59 PM

In kindergarten Zach Knuckey remembers telling his teacher, that when he grew up - he was going to be a fishing guide.  At age 24 his dream was starting to come true.  But a tragic injury has Zach fighting for all he holds dear.  Now Zach is determined to take back his life, and his dreams.

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Sunny days, or rainy days, it didn't matter.  If he was awake, Zach wanted to be fishing. And as he got older, his dream to be a fishing guide just grew and grew. 

"Before my accident, I was fishing five days a week," said Zach.  What he refers to as his accident was a freak spinal injury.  A blood clot in his spinal column, that changed everything.  

"The first 12 days they didn't know what was wrong with me.  They diagnosed me with paralysis of the lower extremities of an unknown origin," Zach said with a serious look on his face. 

In an instant, without warning, Zach became a paraplegic.  

"Mayo was able to tell me I had a stroke in my spine, plus a pulmonary embolism.  They told me that I'd regain minimal function and probably never walk again."

Never walk again.  Imagine hearing those words at just 24 years old.  His dream, a life planned since childhood, shattered.

"All of a sudden your life comes to a screeching halt," he said.

But although his legs came to a halt, his passion to be on the water did not.

"All I want to do is go fishing," Zach told us. 

So, Zach began fighting his way back.

As he rolls into the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation exercise room, Zach joking says to one of the trainers, "Hey, are you going to be nice to my right leg today?"  "Yes,"  Brian Post responds, "I'm going to be nice to your right leg today, just today."  

Post, an exercise specialist says, "There aren't a lot of programs like ours across the country, so this is a very unique opportunity for Zach to get up and be mobile for hours."

Zach is able to drive himself to rehab, traveling from his parents home in Pike Lake down to Golden Valley.

"Okay Zach. Are you ready to rock and roll?" asks one of his trainers.  "I think so," Zach replies.

He is strapped into a state of the art rehabilitation tread mill here at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, which is the only one of it's kind in the five state area.

"We're trying to activate that muscle for walking, to be sending that signal up the spinal cord," says Tony Tolefree, one of Zach's other trainers.  "Zach's job is to look in the mirror and try to walk, so he's sending the signal down the spinal cord."

It's an attempt to stimulate and grow new nerves, below the spot where Zach became paralyzed.

Zach makes the drive down here three days a week.  Each session is four hours as health care professionals try to retrain Zach's legs.  Now, months into it, there is exciting news. Some movement appeared in Zach's right leg.

"Pull those knees up nice and high Zach, nice high knees, not front kicking, just big knees," instructs Tolefree.  Zach responds with a laugh, "Watch out, I might kick ya!"

The trainers are getting used to Zach's sense of humor.

"We used to roll into the parking lot in high school to fishing in the dark," Zach says as he thinks back to happy times.  Then he breaks into song, "It don't matter if we sit forever cuz the fish will bite, baby get ready!"

Song and laughter, things not thought possible that December day, two and a half years ago.  Zach couldn't even wiggle his toes after the stroke.  But after exhaustive work to retrain those nerves and muscles, something began to happen. He had breakthroughs!

"I'm standing all my myself," Zach announced proudly. 

We had the chance to document every monumental step as Zach slowly began walking down the hall with a walker and careful guidance from his trainers.

A full hour later, he's was still going.

"Come on Zach two more steps, come on you can do it!" yells Tolefree.

"Oh man, I'm exhausted, it feels like a prize fight," Zach exclaims as he falls back into his wheelchair. 

"Doctors at Mayo Clinic said I'd regain minimal function and probably never walk again, I proved them wrong," Zach told Eyewitness News with a smile on his face.

Even he was surprised at his own progress.  "An hour and a half of walking? That's insane!"

A couple days later, Zach was back home on Pike Lake, his progress still has him on cloud nine.  And his thoughts, no longer focused on what he can't do, but on reclaiming his hopes and dreams.  "I've been custom building fishing rods," he says proudly.

"Been doing this for awhile now and I just can't seem to hold onto them. They keep flying off the shelves," he says with a smile. 

And Zach is not just building rods for others, he's using a few too.  

"Fishing is my real passion and if I can make a living doing it, all the better", Zach says referring to his big upcoming plans.  

As miraculous as it may seem, this summer Zach is moving ahead toward fulfilling that lifelong dream.  Against all odds, Zach is launching his career as a fishing guide. 

His strong attitude, combined with the upper body strength of an Olympic athlete, Zach can now get in and out of a boat without any assistance.  And he says, he feels free again.

"Fishing is therapeutic for me," he says.  "I can leave the wheelchair in the truck, I don't have to look at the wheel chair, I can forget about my legs and go out on the water and do everything everybody else can and go everywhere everybody else can go and hopefully I can do it better."

And it seems, he can.  Guiding for his Dad last week on opening day, they caught lots of fish.  Even a 30 inch walleye!  What once seemed impossible, is possible again. Dreams, even delayed, can come true.

"Let's go fishin!" Zach hollers out with a smile.

A celebration and fundraiser is planned for Zach and his family to help cover mounting medical expenses. It will be Sunday, August 2nd at the Buffalo House.

Zach is coming back.  


Credits

Darren Danielson

Copyright 2016 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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