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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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Once a Teacher Always a Teacher

By: Sonia Lima

Rich Fabend and his wife, Marge

Rich Fabend and his wife, Marge

Name: Rich Fabend
Injury: C6 complete
Mechanism of Injury: Hit by an ocean wave
Date of Injury: February 1999

After being a teacher for 34 years, Rich Fabend retired, and he and his wife, Marge, decided to go on a winter vacation. They went to St. John in the Virgin Islands, in February of 1999 but this would be no ordinary vacation.

After body surfing at Cinnamon Bay, Fabend, then 55, walked back into the water just as a wave broke in front of him. "I dove into the wave," says Fabend, "but at the wrong time and the wave lifted me up. It drove me to the hard packed bottom." When Fabend floated to the surface, his wife immediately turned him over and had others help get him to the beach area.

He had broken his neck in four different places: C2, C3, C5, and C6. Soon after had no pulse.

Waiting for help
There was a doctor on the beach that aided Fabend. "He helped me for twenty minutes by holding my head in traction until the medics got there," says Fabend, "and thanks to the doctor, the damage was confined to the C6 level."

He was then stabilized on a backboard and taken by ambulance to a small village where he waited for the Coast Guard to take him to the hospital on the island of St. Thomas. "They x-rayed me but didn't do a very competent job," says Fabend. "They thought that my injury was only at C2 and C3 levels, so they didn't check any further. They just stabilized me."

Fabend's wife called for an air ambulance to take them to Syracuse, New York, but they needed $15,000 in cash in order to be picked up. "We had a Visa card with a $5,000 limit," laughs Fabend now. "So if you leave the country, make sure you have a gold or platinum card, because then they will come right away!"

Back in the States
Once he reached the hospital, Fabend was first taken into the emergency room where he still had sand in his pockets and his bathing suit on. "They rolled me over," says Fabend, "and found a Stage IV pressure wound on my sacrum, due to being strapped on the backboard for 36 hours." He was then taken into the operating room where he was thoroughly evaluated. Surgery was then done inserting titanium plates to stabilize his neck anteriorly and a titanium halo was placed around his head. Shortly thereafter another operation was performed sealing a leak in the membrane that surrounds the spinal cord and inserting another titanium plate posteriorly.

Fabend was flown to Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Englewood, Colorado which specializes in spinal cord injuries and brain trauma. "While waiting to be operated on my sacrum," remembers Fabend, "they were bringing in young kids that had been shot that day at nearby Columbine High School. Several went through the rehabilitation program with me."

It took three months to get the pressure wound clean enough to do the skin flap surgery. Fabend had to lay in a bed without moving for five weeks with a special mattress and chaps, which forced blood from the lower legs to the upper torso. Once the wound healed, he was able to start rehabilitation.

Rich enjoys gardening in his vegetable boxes built by his son

Rich enjoys gardening in his vegetable boxes built by his son

Still Me
"My mental rehabilitation lagged behind the physical, I had two problems that consumed me," explains Fabend of his time in rehab. "One was would I no longer be able to do the things that I loved like outdoor activities, and the other was that I wondered if I would simply exist until I passed away."

During his rehab, Fabend read Christopher Reeve's book, Still Me, and couldn't get this line out of his head:

"I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I will live my life. I don't mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful towards recovery."

"The quote by Christopher Reeve is an attitude, and I think that individuals who have disabilities have to develop that attitude," says Fabend: "That they are not going to be inhibited by that disability and instead must work through it. I think of myself as the same person, only shorter!" Like Christopher Reeve said, "I am still me."

Helping others and himself
Fabend's website, www.handihelp.net, that he started in January 2008, is a place that demonstrates simple solutions for physically challenged people, such as picking up a piece of paper, how you can mow your own lawn, and how to use a trigger adapter when hunting. "I came up with a trigger device that allows me to fire a gun with my mouth, and it only cost $2 to make it," states Fabend. "The plans on how to build the devices are all free on the website."

"I spent days and days trying to find the right device to pull the trigger. I tried string, I tried leather, and nothing worked," explains Fabend. "Then one day I thought of a cable tie (a simple piece of plastic that gets used on wheelchairs to hold the wires in place)."

Fabend also gardens with raised vegetable boxes his son built that allow him to drive his wheelchair under. "I grow potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and beans," says Fabend, "and the plans for the box are also available on the website."

"I wanted to show people how living with a disability can be easier," Fabend explains of his demonstration videos on YouTube. "I wanted to show that there are alternative ways to do almost anything!"

Fabend is a true predator on the prowl with his adaptive hunting gear

Fabend is a true predator on the prowl with his adaptive hunting gear

Speaking about attitude
Fabend became a teacher years ago to help young people and continues that today. "My message is not really very different than before I got hurt," says Fabend laughing. "Because I'm in a wheelchair, people give me some amount of credibility, I guess."

He speaks to local public schools and colleges in therapeutic recreation classes and recreational conferences about attitude and disabilities. "I encourage people not to be discouraged by failure," explains Fabend, "because failure provides opportunity for growth."

Fabend had questioned if he was going to have quality of life after his injury. "I tell people from the minute that I hit the bottom of the sea floor, I was the luckiest man in the world. I had wonderful doctors, and a supportive wife, who has stuck with me through thick and thin. I bike, I kayak, I don't do them like I used to, but I still do them."

"I love hunting because turkey and deer don't care that I am in a wheelchair" says Fabend of his favorite outdoor activity, "and they don't care that I fire the gun with my teeth. They don't feel sorry for me. I'm just another predator." (By the way, Fabend's wheelchair was made in Australia, and it has four-wheel drive and balloon tires.)

Though Fabend says some people refer to him as a hero, he doesn't agree. "I am a person who is dealing with the misfortunes of an accident," says Fabend. "Heroes are like the fireman, police officers and the military who do a job knowing full well ahead of time the possible consequences of their behavior, and they choose it anyway. That to me is a hero."

Learn More
Here is Fabend's website and his YouTube videos that demonstrate how he does these simple solutions.

Tell us your story
Telling your story is one way to let anyone touched by paralysis know that they are not alone. We've created a place where you can share your journey for your benefit, and the benefit of others. Your story matters. Share it.

The Adaptive Sports Center (ASC)A non-profit organization located in Colorado that provides year-round recreation activities for people with disabilities and their families.

Achilles Track Club Achilles is a worldwide organization, represented in sixty countries. Our mission is to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics, promote personal achievement, enhance self esteem, and lower barriers.

American Horticultural Therapy AssociationHorticultural therapy (HT) is not only an emerging profession, it is a time-proven practice. The therapeutic benefits of peaceful garden environments have been understood since ancient times. In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and considered to be the "Father of American Psychiatry," reported that garden settings held curative effects for people with mental illness.

Dowling Community Garden: Building Accessible Raised-Bed GardensFunding for the wheelchair accessible beds was provided by the Longfellow Community Council Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). NRP funds paid for the materials and all labor was provided by Dowling gardeners. If you are a wheelchair gardener or know a wheelchair gardener who would be interested in gardening at Dowling, please call the Dowling Community Garden voice mail at (651) 255-6607.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Gardening for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Golf for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Hunting for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Sailing for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Mindfullness (PDF)

American Association of AdaptedSportWorks to enhance the health, independence and self-sufficiency of youths with physical disabilities by facilitating adapted sports programs in local communities, in cooperation with schools, parks and recreation, YMCA/YWCAs, hospitals, parents and other groups.

Blaze Sports501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that advances the lives of youth and adults with physical disability through sport and healthy lifestyles. BlazeSports provides sports training, competitions, summer camps and other sports and recreational opportunities for youth and adults with spinal cord injury, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, muscular dystrophy, amputation, visual impairment or blindness as well as other physical disabilities.

Challenged AmericaThe Challenged America program is dedicated to introduce sailing as a therapeutic and rehabilitative enhancing activity to individuals with disabilities, their loved ones, and professionals in healthcare and rehabilitation.

Disabled Sports USAOffers nationwide sports rehabilitation programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability. Activities include winter skiing, water sports, summer and winter competitions, fitness and special sports events. DSUSA, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, is the governing body for winter sports for all athletes with disabilities, and for summer sports for amputee athletes. Nationwide chapter network of sports and rec programs.

eHow: How to Make a Wheelchair/Scooter Accessible Raised Garden BedHow to build an accessible raised bed garden from inexpensive, easily obtained materials. This is a thoughtful, enriching and enabling gift for the elderly, disabled and arthritic individuals.

E Nasco: CelluGro™ Wheelchair Accessible Green Thumb Therapy GardenDesigned by a horticultural therapist, this makes it possible for anyone who may not be able to do traditional gardening to be active gardeners.

The Handicapped Scuba AssociationPromotes the physical and social well being of people with disabilities through the exhilarating sport of scuba diving.

Hand CyclingWhether for fitness, serious competition, or pure recreation, here's a sport that can be enjoyed by many and provide quite the "ride" at the same time.

Flaghouse: Gardening ProductsTo enhance the quality of life for all people, with resources for physical activity, recreation, therapy, and the development and support of life skills.

Friends Hospital: Adaptive Gardening to Meet Your Changing NeedsGardening is one of our most popular national pastimes. Horticulture can be enjoyed by almost everyone, whether young or old, weak or strong, able-bodied or handicapped. Gardening can be a vigorous activity or a sedentary one. As you grow older or your physical abilities change, there is no need for you to stop gardening. Gardens and tools may be modified to help ease stress and strain and allow you to continue to participate in one of the best leisure activities.

Gardener's Supply Co.Disability Opens New Doors for a Lifelong Gardener .

Infinitec: Enabling Gardens This section demonstrates accessible ways to garden, but please consult general gardening resources for help with soil preparation, planting, fertilizing, mulching, pruning, etc.

National Wheelchair Basketball AssociationBasketball is perhaps the oldest organized sport for athletes in wheelchairs. The game is fast and fun, and played in dozens of cities across the U.S.

The National Center on AccessibilityNSCD provides recreation for children and adults with disabilities. In addition to recreational downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, NSCD provides year-round competition training to ski racers with disabilities. Summer recreation opportunities include biking, hiking, in-line skating, sailing, therapeutic horseback riding, white water rafting, baseball, fishing, rock climbing for the blind, and camping.

Piers Park Sailing CenterA non-profit community sailing center that uses Boston Harbor and the seas beyond to provide year-round recreational, educational, and personal growth opportunities for people of all ages and abilities!

Quad RugbyFormerly known as murderball, Quad Rugby is a game for quads who can push a chair. Fast, rough and very competitive.

The United States Tennis AssociationTennis has been adapted for the wheelchair player: the ball can bounce two times. This allows chair-players to give standup players a run for the their money. The sport is growing fast and is very competitive at the elite level. Click on "community tennis."

World T.E.A.M. SportsUnites people with and without disabilities through unique athletic events taking place all over the world.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3001, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.