Tony’s Story: Athlete and Teacher Paralyzed, Yet Thankful

When you're athletic and at the prime of your life, it's hard to imagine suddenly being paralyzed. But it happened to Tony Peth. He was 27, and things couldn't have been better. 

The Centerville native was living in San Diego, completing his Ph.D. in a fellowship program and working at a research lab. In his spare time, he was mountain biking and skiing.

He had entered a biking/running race at Camp Pendleton Marine Base. As he was finishing the last obstacle of the race, he was required to do a belly flop into a mud hole. The jolt caused his fifth cervical vertebra to crack. Tony found himself lying face down in water and muck with his body completely paralyzed. A sharp race employee knew something was wrong and reacted quickly, turning him over before he drowned.

Tony was airlifted to a local hospital and then spent five months in a San Diego rehab facility. Finally he was well enough to return to Dayton. He spent the next month at the Rehabilitation Institute of Ohio at Miami Valley Hospital and afterward continued as a same-day patient for months.

Spinal cord injuries are life changing. In Tony's case, he is classified as a C-5 quadriplegic and is paralyzed from the chest down. Through therapy he regained some of the movement in his shoulder and arms. In addition to the physical therapy aimed at restoring as much function as Tony's body would allow, he also had to learn to use a wheelchair.

But Tony has taken it all in stride. He realized that his edgy lifestyle could lead to something like this. He has just kept moving forward without looking back.

The Spinal Cord Injury Program offered Tony a unique educational/training program that addresses the specific needs of spinal cord injury patients. Part of the program is CORP, the Comprehensive Outpatient Rehabilitation Program. At CORP, emphasis is placed on rehabilitation that integrates the patient back into society. Tony also visited the Spinal Cord Injury Follow-Up Clinic.

As Tony improved physically and learned how to function with what dexterity he had left, he took on new challenges. A goal for Tony was to shun an electric wheelchair. When his arm function was at the point he could self-power a manual wheelchair, he returned to school at Wright State University (WSU). Soon he was offered a job teaching anatomy and physiology.

Functioning in the world still has many challenges for Tony. Friends and family helped raise enough money for him to get a specially equipped minivan that is wheelchair accessible. 

Tony's unrelenting athletic drive is now focused on other areas. After seeing how much he could accomplish with his mobility, he decided to help others. He founded Rapid Motion, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting disabled athletes. Its first event was a 5K run at Centerville High School that attracted 200 runners and generated $16,000. Tony has become a popular speaker and has been a panelist at Miami Valley Hospital’s Spinal Cord Reunion event.

As with any spinal cord injury patient, Tony’s rehabilitation is ongoing. He continually does roadwork with his wheelchair, taking on the neighborhood hills. Twice a week he also works out at WSU's research park, where he is strapped to a stationary bike and technicians hook electrodes to his legs. Controlled current does what Tony can't. It triggers his leg muscles, allowing Tony to "ride" the bike.

Success for someone like Tony can't be measured by one victory, like mastering a wheelchair. Even what people consider common daily tasks bring new challenges. With special equipment, he mastered using a computer. Tony uses a voice program that allows him to dictate to his word processor. Though his hand movements are still very limited, a trackball with large buttons allows him to navigate the Web and keep in touch by email.

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