Stony Brook University students and local community members stopped by the Walter J. Hawrys Campus Recreation Center July 23 to check out the latest equipment created to make life easier for those with spinal cord injuries.
Organized by Boston-based nonprofit Empower Spinal Cord Injury, the expo featured vendors from the health care field who specialize in innovative products for individuals with spinal cord injuries. On display were products such as the Action Trackchair that can handle rocky, dirt roads and go through streams, and a wheelchair called permobil that helps those who are paralyzed to maneuver upright. Participants also demonstrated a wheelchair rugby game called quad rugby, also known as murderball, where players sit in custom-made, manual wheelchairs and play a chair-based form of rugby, physical contact and all.
In attendance were participants from Empower SCI’s two-week program that began July 14 at the university. The residential program, in its eighth year at SBU, provides an opportunity for participants to be involved in an immersive rehabilitation experience with a mix of recreational activities such as cycling, yoga, quad rugby and kayaking in Setauket Harbor. Attendees also learn techniques such as how to make getting out of bed and dressing for the day easier on the body.
Stephanie Romano, assistant director of the program, said each year approximately 50 volunteers help a dozen program participants regain independence and passion in activities, as spinal cord injuries alter the ability to control parts of the body. According to the organization, more than 17,000 people are affected by the injuries each year in the United States.
Andrew Gallo, from Lake Grove, has participated in the program for the last two years. The 28-year-old was injured in December 2016 while diving in the ocean in Florida when he hit a sandbar. He learned about the program through his therapy office, and he said a friend told him, “There’s life before Empower, and there’s life after Empower and that I had to go.”
Gallo said it’s difficult for wheelchair users to get together, and he said he learned from his fellow participants several tricks to help navigate the day a little easier.
“To be around like people makes all the difference,” Gallo said. “You get to interact with them and see what they would do at home in their regular lifestyle.”
He said due to this year’s program he had a chance to try kayaking again, something he had done a few times before his accident. After last year’s event, he has tried adaptive hand cycling, and now he’s looking into buying his own bike.
Jack Gerard, of Massachusetts, who was injured three years ago while swimming in Cape Cod, was also in attendance with his service dog Radar, named after the M*A*S*H character. He first attended the program a few years ago when he couldn’t get out of bed or dress on his own. This year he is a mentor.
“We learn to adapt here rather than trying to change things, Gerard said. “So, I just find a different way to do it, and that’s how I go forward in my life.”
Gerard said he wanted to use the skills that helped him look at life differently and share them with others. He said his life is back on track with returning to school at the University of Massachusetts, playing sports and attending social events. The former lacrosse player and high school track and field player is now into quad rugby, adaptive surfing and hand cycling where he recently cycled 750 miles.
Everyone learns from each other, he said, even mentors from volunteers, especially since sometimes people don’t know what’s possible until others show them.
“One of the biggest things is that you have to be vulnerable to be brave,” he said. “There are a lot of things in our lives that we have to figure out by saying maybe this isn’t the right way to do it. I need to push through this wall to find a different way to get around it.”
For more information about Empower Spinal Cord Injury, visit www.empowersci.org.