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One part neighborhood bar, one part Southern kitchen and a dash of wood smoke greeted Michael Thor upon his permanent return to Raleigh last month. After spending nearly three years in Atlanta recovering from a paralyzing motorcycle accident, the Whiskey Kitchen co-owner is back in the world he helped create.
“So far, so good,” says Thor, who returned to Raleigh August 3. “It’s tiring. Friday and Saturday are both 10 hours here. I have to figure out what my body can handle and what it can’t. I hit the ground running at the beginning of the week and crash by the end.”
Thor suffered a C2 spinal cord injury from the accident in November of 2015 and relies on a wheelchair to get around. He currently lives “wheeling” distance from his restaurant on West Martin Street, allowing him to get to work on his own.
With a weak voice due to a compromised diaphragm, Thor admits that working in the restaurant takes more energy than it used to.
“I feel like being here is really going to help me,” Thor says. “You have to take deep breaths to be real loud, especially in this restaurant.”
Although Thor had been living in Atlanta, he co-led the birth of Whiskey Kitchen. He received constant updates, and gifts, including a full ticket stabber from a bell dinger from a busy Friday night. Seeing the restaurant for the first time last March during a fundraiser in his honor, Thor knew everything had come together.
“I came in and everything looked exactly as it was pictured in my head, but it wasn’t emotional because it was how I’d seen it all along,” Thor says. “I could not be more proud of the people who came together and made it a reality in my absence.”
Now that Thor is back in Raleigh, he’s re-experiencing a profession that never sleeps while also adjusting to working in a different way. From knowing the details of the bar and the kitchen to the front of the house, the list is endless.
“I know the restaurant industry inside and out, but how Whiskey Kitchen runs is a new experience for me,” says Thor. “I feel as the owner of the business, I should know how to do all of the things a business does.”
Thor says some days he feels really strong, while others he can hardly move. His recovery has been unique because, typically once a person gets movement back, they don’t lose it again. This hasn’t been the case for Thor, whose recovery has ebbed and flowed, but for the most part has maintained a positive trajectory.
“The move back to North Carolina was incredibly scary, not knowing how to transfer from this safe little pocket,” he says. “Somehow, it was scarier than the realization that I was paralyzed at all. I had always assumed that one day I would walk back through the doors of the restaurant. It was right around the 18-month mark that I realized it was not going to be a quick fix.”
Whiskey Kitchen is a large restaurant space, allowing ample room for Thor to get around, but its offices are located upstairs, presenting a new challenge. A new downstairs office space is in the works.
Inspiration to his Community
Thor, along with his wife, Sarah, and his mother, Karen, hope their experiences will help promote adaptive environments in restaurants. A few people from Thor’s rehab at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center were also involved in the culinary industry and understand the struggles of working in that industry while disabled. Peer support has been vital throughout Thor’s recovery, and he recently created the new Instagram handle of @crippledcook, which racked up more than 1,000 followers in less than 5 months.
“It gives disabled people hope to see someone continue and be successful in life and being happy and not trapped and confined,” Thor says. “It gives them a positive thing to grasp onto.”
We Are a Team
Thor hasn’t undergone his recovery alone. Sarah has served as full-time caregiver, learning quickly about health, wellness, nursing, wound care and much more.
“We work together really well and this experience has changed us both,” Sarah says.
“For the better,” says Thor, finishing his wife’s sentence for her. “Physically, not so much. I wasn’t an advocate for anything prior to the accident. This thrust us into a new world. It didn’t just happen to me. It happened to the entire family. It happened to the restaurant. A lot of people were affected when I went down.”
As a couple, they have become more patient and communicate better. They talk about what’s on their minds and how it pivots in their new lifestyle.
“It’s one of the hardest things anyone would have to do,” Sarah says.
“And if our roles were reversed, we’d have a very different story,” adds Thor.
Inspired by Thor’s injury, Karen, his mother, is opening NextStep Raleigh, a paralysis recovery center at 6601 Hillsborough Street. The 3,200 square-foot, accessible, community-based rehabilitation gym will house specialized paralysis recovery equipment, including functional electrical stimulation and neuromuscular electrical stimulation equipment.
NextStep Raleigh will serve people in the Triangle living with paralysis. There are approximately 125,000 local people suffering from some sort of paralysis due to stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, amputation, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury, and recovery centers are few and far between.
“We’re hoping at the beginning to get around 30 patients that work out 3-4 hours per week, hoping it will grow from there,” Karen says.
Patients will come in for an assessment, then set up an exercise program with guided exercise. It costs $100 per hour and insurance doesn’t cover exercise physiologists. The team plans on raising funds for scholarships.
“A spinal cord injury is the definition of adding insult to injury,” Karen says. “Messages can’t get from the brain to the body, causing nerves to fire all over the place. It’s a complete miscommunication of the body.”
The center has hired full-time employees aligned with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, ensuring that all will be neuro-recovery network (NRN) certified. UNC has committed to sending interns to the center, and Karen hopes other local universities will participate as well.
Karen admits there is a lot of room for growth as the non-profit matures, as it was expensive to open in the first place. She also hopes for corporate sponsorships and charitable donations to purchase more equipment and expand offerings to include caregiver support and alternative therapy.
“We have to get our feet under us first,” Karen says, adding that she hopes the center will help support neurological research. “Every spinal injury is completely unique. I don’t think there’s ever been as much activity around figuring out how to heal spinal cord injuries as there is right now.”
NextStep Raleigh’s grand opening takes place September 20.
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