"Wayne just never had a question. If she wanted to walk, she was going to walk." w/VIDEO
Spinal cancer put her in a wheelchair, but Julie Barber was determined to walk across the stage at the 2018 Lebanon High graduation. Trainer Wayne Burwell told her to settle for nothing less.
On Thursday, Julie Barber caused the crowd at Lebanon High School’s graduation ceremony to erupt in cheers — and no small number of tears — when she pushed up from her wheelchair and walked across the stage to collect her diploma as a member of the Class of 2018.
Two mornings later, she was back inside a no-nonsense gym in a corrugated steel building downtown, sweat pouring from her face as she continued the workouts that allowed her to prove the doctors wrong and begin to walk again.
Coaching her every step along the way was Wayne Burwell, trainer to many of the Valley’s top high school athletes — and, for the last nine months, the man who never said never.
“Wayne just never had a question,” Julie’s mom, Kate Barber, told me. “If she wanted to walk, she was going to walk.”
Julie is the second eldest of four children in a Cornish family that takes hockey seriously. A defenseman on the Lebanon Raiders team, Julie was a graceful skater, a supple athlete. But in the fall of 2016, she noticed that grace slipping. Her back was hurting, her skating ragged.
Just before Thanksgiving that year, she walked into Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for the biopsy surgery that would confirm she had a rare cancer, Grade II astrocytoma, growing inside her spine.
She emerged from surgery paralyzed from the waist down, underwent another surgery the next month to remove the tumor, and spent three months in the hospital and a Boston-area rehab center. When she finally returned home, it was in a wheelchair.
The community rallied to Julie’s side, raising money to help cover medical expenses and throwing her a surprise homecoming. Her Lebanon teammates sewed a patch bearing her No. 17 on their uniforms. And her family, a tight bunch, helped her celebrate the highs and endure the lows.
But there was one thing Julie was determined to do on her own: Walk.
Enter Burwell, a 1998 Dartmouth grad with an easy grin and killer biceps who runs a gym — he calls it Wayne’s World — in an industrial building off Mechanic Street. Julie and her older brother, T.J., had done early morning trainings with Burwell before the cancer struck.
After seeing her at a Dartmouth hockey game last winter, Burwell told Julie that he’d be happy to have her back at the gym, pursuing whatever goals she set for herself.
Julie Barber with trainers Ethen Perkins (l) and Wayne Burwell (r).
Julie had talked to her doctor about the possibility of walking. While she lost most use of her legs, she had feeling in them and was able to move her toes and flex her ankles a bit. Surely, she thought, she could build from there.
Don’t get your hopes up about walking, the doctor replied. Her mom recalls, “He said if she did, it would be ‘serendipitous.’ ”
Late last summer, Julie showed up at Burwell’s gym, the doctor’s pessimism still stinging in her ears.
“What is your goal?” Burwell asked her.
“To walk again,” Julie replied.
“Well,” Burwell said. “That’s our goal.”
Burwell doesn’t run a rehab center. When Julie arrived in her wheelchair, he and Ethen Perkins — a 2016 Lebanon grad who played football for the Raiders before moving on to Plymouth State — had to carry her up the steep wooden steps into the room full of workout machines, free weights and kettle bells.
Consulting with other trainers, doing his own research and building on techniques he had used to help an injured skier and his own grandmother, Burwell pieced together a plan. Over the fall and through the winter, he and Perkins worked with Julie to build the arm and core strength she would need to push herself up to standing, then turned to electrical muscle stimulation and a pair of custom leg braces to help her reach for the next level.
But it wasn’t until last Monday, just three days before graduation, that Julie was able to take her first steps. Using a walker, she made it all the way across the gym floor, proving right the words her coach had said to her months before.
“I truly believe you can walk again,” Burwell had told her. “I don’t care what the science says.”
After scouting out the stage set-up for Thursday’s ceremony, Julie decided she wanted to give it a go.
Photo courtesy of Kate Barber
“Julie Grace Barber,” the announcer intoned, as Burwell pushed the soon-to-be graduate in her wheelchair up a ramp to the stage. Hearing her name, knowing her story, the crowd began to cheer.
Then, in a moment few anticipated, Burwell produced a walker and placed it in front of Julie. Gripping the rails, she leaned forward and, her jaw set in determination, pushed herself slowly to her feet.
Right, left, right, left. Lifting and placing her feet with slow precision, Julie took ten steps and — as the crowd whooped and her classmates stood and cheered — accepted her diploma standing tall in the soft spring air.
Photo courtesy of Kate Barber
A few hours after Saturday’s post-grad workout, Julie credited Burwell and Perkins with helping her stick with the grueling training, even when she sometimes felt like giving up.
“Wayne’s always tough,” she said, looking at him with an impish smile.
“How about loving tough?” he laughed.
What’s next for Julie? More workouts, for sure. She wants to get that walking thing down, and she has a notion that she’d like to get her 2003 Subaru Forester out of the garage and back on the road.
It’s got a stick shift. Neither she nor Burwell and Perkins seem daunted.
Julie is taking a gap year, and hopes after to attend college to study zoology. She’d like to build a career in animal conservation and rehabilitation.
Burwell has no doubts she will reach the goals she sets.
“She’s an athlete at heart. She just grinds it out,” he said. “She’s a leader. People are always going to follow her.”
Burwell doesn't mention this, but all that training Julie got at his gym? He hasn't charged her or her family a dime.
"He gave her a full year of free training, an incredible gift as we would never have been able to afford to pay his rate," Kate said. "That year has come and gone and Wayne refuses to take any payment for all that he does for her."
When I asked him about that, Burwell shrugged. "I just wanted her to walk."
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Photo courtesy of Kate Barber.