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Continuously Raising the Bar

Adam Taliaferro has amazed many during his recovery from a spinal cord injury, and now he is focused on passing yet another big test

Taliaferro rehabbing at Magee
"This is not a sprint, it's a marathon."

This is Adam Taliaferro's prevailing message that he passes along to spinal cord injury patients he periodically visits at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital. His words speak to the grueling—and rewarding—physical therapy they face each and every day in their rehabilitation at the Hospital.

Whether it's lending a supportive ear, imparting a piece of advice, or offering a comforting hand, Adam is someone who can truly empathize with the patients and the hurdles they need to overcome.

"This is not a sprint, it's a marathon."

Those eight small words were a big wakeup call to him when he, too, was trying to overcome a devastating spinal injury. If he closes his eyes, he can hear the doctor repeating that message the first time he came to Magee.

If he closes his eyes, he can also flash back to September 23, 2000, when as a freshman cornerback for Penn State University, he injured his spinal cord while making a tackle against Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. His whole world changed in a blink of an eye.

Following successful spinal fusion surgery at Ohio State University Medical Center and then a transfer to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, he was admitted to Magee on October 6, 2000.

That's when the next chapter of his life began.

It has been nearly seven years since Adam nervously entered the doors of Magee with the goal of hopefully walking again.

It seems like ages ago. Since that time, he has had a book written about him, carried the Olympic torch, made countless motivational speeches along the East Coast, graduated from Penn State, helped found a foundation, and is pursuing a degree in law. And, oh, yeah, he walked out of Magee three months after he was admitted.

"Physically, I'm doing great," says Adam during a recent visit with some patients. "I still have a slight limp. If that's the worst that came of all this, then I'm thankful. I try to work out everyday. I don't have too many limitations."

That is, if you don't consider passing the Bar exam a limitation. Adam is one year away from graduating from Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J., with a degree in corporate litigation. He never thought the legal field would be his career path prior to his injury, but now he is focusing on one big goal: Passing the Bar.

"I initially became involved with law because I wanted to be a sports agent," he says. "I graduated from Penn State with a degree in labor and industrial relations, which deals with employment law issues. In law school, I started to get interested in corporate litigation through the internships I took. Now, my biggest obstacle is the Bar exam."

If Adam exhibits the same tenacity, commitment, and courage he displayed at Magee, then the Bar exam will be just another test he'll pass with flying colors.

Seven years ago, his obstacle was more profound. When he came to Magee, he could not even move his toes. Confusion set over him. But a family friend, who was a previous patient at the Hospital, assured him that "Magee was the place to be to get better."

It didn't take long for Adam to notice.

"Magee was a place that changed my life," he says proudly. "When I came here, I didn't have any movement from the neck down. I had two great therapists and a team of people that had my best interests at heart. It wasn't just a patient-therapist relationship; it was more than that. Without Magee, I wouldn't be where I am today."

Amy Bratta, SCI Rehab Manager at Magee, was one of Adam's primary therapists. She recalls him being a tireless worker who maintained a positive spirit. Even when patients and visitors sought his autograph or wanted to talk to him, she says he always made time for them. "He was very humble about his success and made people feel comfortable, no matter what their level of injury or active movement was at the time."

Bratta says Magee's team of physicians and therapists had specific goals, each of which he accomplished. "We tried to facilitate movement and promote recovery in any way we could," says Bratta. "We tried to promote weight bearing through his lower extremities as much as possible.  We also tried to promote independence every day with whatever task he was working on at the time, all with the goal of helping him to become stronger and more in control."

One of the therapies that challenged him the most was the Locomotor Training (LT) Program. It entails the use of body-weight-supported treadmill training in which participants are placed in a parachute type harness attached to an overhead bar and positioned over a treadmill. Once the treadmill begins moving, therapists help individuals move their legs in a way that optimizes sensory inputs. This process helps individuals with certain types of neurologic dysfunction enhance their locomotor skills and, eventually, walking ability. The LT Program also consists of overground walking training (facilitated walking on a regular surface), and community ambulation training using everyday functional skills (walking, transfers, self-care activities, etc.).

"I'll always remember the Locomotor Training Program," says Adam. "That helped me regain my walking ability. It was the toughest thing I had to do at Magee. Trying to train myself to move my legs and then having the speed of the treadmill turned up was tough, but it was a big benefit.

"I enjoyed every session," he adds, "because it made me feel like I was back on my feet. There were times I would lose my balance and trip. After each session, I was drenched in sweat, but I felt I was accomplishing something."

Adam received encouragement from numerous family members and friends who visited him.

During his first week at Magee, he received a phone call from the late Christopher Reeve, who offered advice and counsel. Sports stars such as the Eagles' Donovan McNabb and the team's defensive secondary players, including Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent, and Bobby Taylor, came to visit. Penn State's legendary football coach Joe Paterno and his wife would make a three-hour trip from Happy Valley, Pa., every other week to stay with Adam at Magee. Jerry Segal, Magee's most ardent benefactor, always made a point to stop by to extend emotional support.

Then came that glorious moment documented by the flashing cameras of the local and national media on January 5, 2001. Flanked by his family and friends as well as Bratta and other Magee clinicians, Adam—aided by two walking canes—walked out of Magee's main entrance.

"It's still hard to put into words the feeling I had," he recalls. "That was a goal of mine from the first day I came to Magee. We didn't know if it would happen. It was a culmination of all the hard work that the people at Magee and I had put in."

Several members of the Magee family were present when Adam made another momentous walk, this time more of a jog. Coach Paterno had the idea that his injured player would one day lead the Nittany Lions onto the field from Beaver Stadium's tunnel. He thought it may be a few years. It wasn't. It was just one year after he was injured in Columbus.

On September 1, 2001, in front of a packed stadium of more than 109,000 electrified fans, Adam emerged from the tunnel with his teammates trailing and walked—then walked a bit faster—onto the field. The moment, he says, was surreal.

"For it to happen a year later after my injury was something else," he says. "It was great that my family and friends and people of Magee were there to see it. The plan was to walk, but the adrenaline started to kick in. I started to skip and then went into a jog. It was really special."

Around the same time, a foundation in his name was formed to provide educational resources for people who work in the fields of athletics and medicine as well as grant funding for athletes who experience serious injuries that affect their ambulatory function. The Adam Taliaferro Foundation raises money through several fundraisers, including the Annual Adam Taliaferro All-Star Football Classic, which takes place at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. He says the foundation is a way to give back to those who need help.

"We started the Foundation with the idea that we could help young, injured athletes who didn't have the means to pay for their rehabilitation," he says. "Each year, we see it grow a little more. More and more people are getting involved to help raise money to provide wheelchair ramps and renovate houses, so that these injured individuals can get back to somewhat normal lives."

Magee maintains a special place in Adam's heart. He continues to visit with patients and is involved with the Hospital's major fundraisers, including the Jerry Segal Classic and the Night of Champions.

As for the near future, Adam says he envisions more highlights physically, emotionally, and professionally.

"In the next six or seven years," he says, "I hope to be working in a law firm and enjoying life. I've been through a lot, but I hope to keep going in the same direction. I also want to keep coming back to Magee as much as I can to help inspire others who were in the same situation I was in seven years ago."

UPDATE October 2010: Adam is now a practicing attorney in New Jersey.

For more information about the Adam Taliaferro Foundation, please visit www.taliaferrofoundation.org.

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Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders