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Dr. Tom Balchin

Meet Dr. Tom Balchin

tom 2 - Dr. Tom Balchin - Stroke Rehabilitation and Exercise Training for Survivors & Specialist Stroke Courses for Therapists and Trainers, Online and Face to FaceI am aware that reading stroke survivors stories is very inspirational. I have always resisted writing about myself, because I have always felt that what I have to say about the recovery of others, and how to help them achieve their goals, is much more relevant and important. However, at ARNI, we have found that people want to know where some of the major ideas for our unique programmes have stemmed from. Therefore, below is a brief account of the process that led to the formation of the Charity and Institute.

In 1997 I had a major brain haemorrhage that paralysed the left side of my body. When I came out of hospital I was still in a wheelchair and weighing roughly 9 stone. There was only one way to go though, and that was upwards! I was fortunate enough to find an extremely innovative and expert physiotherapist whose aim was to help me regain self-reliance as quickly as possible. This positive approach helped me to regain emotional stability, which increased possibilities of physical stabilities, and was undoubtedly instrumental to my further successes.

Through an innovative combination of movements derived from martial arts, resistance training and many other approaches, I have regained nearly all my functional movement, and still continue to perfect over the years, using ARNI-developed techniques. During this time I also finished my first degree and taught for two years at a school. I then went on to complete my MA(Ed) and Phd and spent three years as research fellow/lecturer in gifted education at Brunel University, London and then as MA course leader in gifted education at Reading University.

I have completed a major handbook for the field (The Routledge International Companion to Gifted Education) and numerous other books, book chapters and peer-reviewed papers within the advanced learning and neurorehabilitation areas. The latest book series concerns the training of stroke survivors is called The Successful Stroke Survivor. In conjunction with the voluntary day to day running of the ARNI Institute, I am Visiting Lecturer in neurorehabilitation at a number of Universities, including Middlesex University, Brunel University and Oxford Brookes University. I was Secretary (and Vice-President Elect) of the Technology in Medicine Section Council at the Royal Society of Medicine, on the Council of the United Kingdom Rehabilitation Council (UKRC) and have been on the United Kingdom Stroke Forum Conference Steering Group (Stroke Association) for 10 years.

I also am currently a Visiting Professor at the School of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Bolton, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes University and also at the University of East Anglia. Further, I was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology (FRSB), Yeoman of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and am a Chartered Scientist. Patents include the invention of a multi-purpose exercising bar designed for patients with hemiplegia and to protect scar tissue of patients who sustain epilepsy (GB-2499828-B) and a patent-pending  is an innovative hand-powered exerciser to tackle residual spasticity of the extensors of the thumb and fingers of stroke survivors.  In 2015 I was awarded the Order of Mercy by The League of Mercy for 15 years of volunteer work with stroke patients.

I have also become a very serious power-lifter and strength athlete. I am a BWLA instructor and train many non-stroke trainees to become fit, strong and to put on muscle. Along with this, I also practised aikido and karate, achieving a brown belt, and then same in taekwondo and hapkido. Remember, all of this was done whilst working around the remnants of partial paralysis on one side. Ultimately, in 2008, I was very proud to be awarded the grade of 3rd Dan by Grand Master Lee (8th Dan), who is the present Head Grand Master of the International Teukgong Moosool Federation. This is the the modern official system of self-defence used by the different teams of the South Korean Special Forces. In 2021, I was awarded 4th Dan Taekwondo grade.

The outcome of this transition from my former state has meant that I have had to develop a huge number of beneficial techniques all designed to restore function in people who have had paralysis on one side. My strong belief is that knowledge translates to power! And so I have researched, investigated and evaluated all the strength techniques under the sun that can possibly of use to me. I have spent years acquiring the necessary knowledge to make myself strong and cope with life again. Thus I have a great deal to share.

Having been used to driving myself in physical pursuits before my injury, I knew that there is no magic button that was going to sort me out. Once physiotherapy ran its natural course, I just went for it. I just took it as read that once out of rehab, it is up to you to take it further. I have not stopped working and won’t stop because I’m getting better all the time applying the ARNI principles. My methods initially were based on trial and error with a good dose of intuition, serendipity and support, which allowed me to take risks and be creative. These were then built on by filtering out those that didn’t match the evidence-base, which is what I’ve done since inception of the Charity until today.

However, I realised, a year before the inception of the ARNI Stroke Charity in 2001 (which is also known as the ARNI Institute Charity for Stroke Rehabilitation to indicate its teaching element), that there were very few real ‘retraining’ methods shown to the stroke survivors I had met that actually seemed to allow them to recover well in the community and achieve an excellent quality of life again. Up to this time, I had taken no notice of literature dedicated to stroke survivors; preferring instead to do what I instinctively knew would work for me. However, once I got to the stage that I began wanting to help others with their injuries and apply the knowledge that I taken on-board from the stroke rehab evidence-base at the time, and the innovative techniques I had to developed to help myself, I began to notice the number of people who stated that they were stuck ‘in limbo’ after coming home from rehabilitation, or had reached a ‘plateau’ at home with their own efforts.

My first success was a 50-year old in Brighton, four years out from stroke, who asked me to help him to regain actual movement, function and confidence. This was performed free, to see what could be done. Over a period of six months, using my own extensive gymnasium incorporating equipment designed and built by myself for my own recuperation, we worked hard and produced amazing results in terms of actual movement return from paralysis. In this time, he went from walking with a stick, to being able to jog.. albeit a bit awkwardly! I began to wonder, from my successes in assisting others, if I could produce a working structure to help people who want to make as full recovery as possible and who were willing to explore options, be self-motivated, persistent and open-minded.

My recuperation was probably unique because I did an incredible amount of ‘task-training’. Neuroplasticity is about repetitions, and the exact optimal dosage of repetitions is still unclear, but it is widely acknowledged that almost all survivors, particularly if they have upper limb limitations (70% do), complete only a homeopathic amount daily. However, I was able to ally my recovery to a my hobby at the time (this is a BIG tip for stroke survivors reading this!), which involved both upper limbs intensively. From the very start, after discharge, I came home and did two to three hours of DJ desk work. It drove my parents insane and I couldn’t use my left hand at all at all the start! But via this intensive practice, and the ‘forced-use-ness’ of it, my recorded tapes got better and better. And so did my upper limb. This was pure luck, by the way (I just enjoyed making music and wanted to ‘forget about the stroke), but I hit upon a massive key to recovery via creative activity allied with bloody-mindedness. The successful stroke survivor needs to be a bit like that, but I feel that all rehabilitations I seen subsequently don’t need to be so ‘hardcore’ – it’s just what I personally did. everyone’s journey is their own and no two strokes are the same. Generalisable motor movement strategies can be learned however, which is a feature of ARNI teaching.

I was also able to create a strength training programmes for myself that actually ‘delivered the goods’. From the start, my focus was to build up my strength because I was very weak. I remember just being able to lift a weightlifting bar. From there I dedicated myself to becoming strong and now, for instance, I can deadlift 210kg, squat 170 kg and thick-bar press 90 kg overhead for singles. I also squeeze 90kg of pressure with each hand. Believe it or not, my left hand has gone from nothing to actually being slightly stronger than my right. Strength is nothing without application of movement, however. My greatest fortune was that I was initially able to ally strength training with aikido. Aikido is primarily a martial art, but is not a ‘hard’ style, rather it is a softer, flowing style. It relies very much on blending with an attacker’s movements in order to accept their energy and use it to defeat them. There are a great many skills, techniques and principles to be learned in aikido; but at its very core is energy and movement. Aikido principles are unique in the fact that they allow the whole body to attempt movement in natural ways, building the difficulty level as necessary according to the time you spend doing it. Along with increased movement come untold benefits in confidence levels allowing one to deal with the disability you have.

The first few months were difficult. I insisted that no quarter should be given to me during the training. I remember having to learn to forward-roll and backwards-roll, as well as doing basic four-directional forms. I was tripping over my foot because of foot-drop (I wore no supports), and there was no way I could allow myself to fall over; the mental blocks were just too strong! I certainly could not sit in a kneeling position for meditation. However, these and all other such challenges have all been overcome, providing untold benefits in instinctive body movement.

I found that the more I progressed in strength training, balancing up the strength in my weaker side the more able I would become at aikido. They definitely complimented each other and, without the combination of the two, I doubt very much if I would have made the progress in fine motor movements that I have made up until today. An important qualifier to this is that aikido emphasises that strength is unimportant; in fact, once strength goes into techniques, the natural energy and efficacy of the techniques are lost. For those who have lost movement however, my teachers and I have found that strength plays a significant part in assisting the body to relearn and further develop physical movement. It is what I like to call ‘meta-change’; consistent change that builds upon itself.

Of course, with the training comes confidence and strength of mind. It is about covering yourself with armour really; stroke or comparable injury is so intense and emotionally overwhelming long after physical movement seems to have returned, that you must do what is in your power to protect yourself from further damage as you seek to not only regain the life you had, but use the insult as an opportunity and chance to rise above. Through adversity comes strength.

So successful was my approach to my own rehabilitation that I decided to make it available to other stroke survivors. With the help and assistance of Dave Waters (Founder and chief instructor of the Kyudokai Martial Arts Association) the Action for Rehabilitation from Neurological Injury group was started, dedicated to assisting others in their rehabilitations from the effects of stroke. Dave has since retired, but the Charity owes him a great debt of gratitude for getting the Group off the ground, and providing the help we needed to expand.

I am proud of the way the successes that we have achieved since 2001. I have been personally able to help over thousands of stroke survivors, and have run countless seminars for instructors. The growing band of skilled Instructors continue to help people all over the UK. We now have an excellent Speech and Language Therapy service (Telerehab), using postgraduate speech and language pathologists based in South Africa alongside UCL expertise.

These Instructors are all experts in physical movement, most are registered with the Register of Exercise Professionals, and are also either strength athletes or martial artists as well. These people been through the comprehensive ARNI Institute Functional Rehabilitation & Exercise Training after Stroke Qualification and have had to learn how to take special care of stroke survivors. These are the people to train you. These are the people who will show you how to encourage real plastic change, yet understand that it is vital that you also develop some real-life coping strategies… fast. Don’t bother going anywhere else. I firmly believe the concept of ARNI is unique, and its many successes bear out the necessity for its existence.


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