Spotlight: Leo Pergson

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on June 11, 2018 # Health, Mobility

“It is important to stay active and stay informed. I survived by not giving in to pains but by doing the best I can. Sometimes you just keep breathing and accept and embrace the great challenges of your disability journey by giving the best of what you have every day.” - Leo Bubby Pergson

Leo Bubby Pergson can sum up his best advice for living with a spinal cord injury in three words – attitude is everything. Living with a spinal cord injury for 57 years, Pergson certainly knows a good deal about the topic.

“I was an active 17-year-old high school student in 1961 when a diving accident in the Kern River in Bakersfield, California, changed my life forever,” said Pergson who is from Willows, Ca. “The doctors gave my parents three days for me to live. The compression was from the C-2 through C-6 vertebrae with limited sensory and complete paralysis below my shoulders. I spent four months confined to spinal traction, lying flat on my back on Striker Frame and regained only very limited movement in my lower extremities.”

With access to only general practitioner medical care, Pergson’s injury, like many at the time, was deemed complete with no hope of recovery a year after his accident and he was transferred to hospice care. In 1963, he was moved to Casa Colina Rehab Center in Pomona for three years where he began his long road of therapy, eventually standing in parallel bars and then walking on crutches.

“Even after all these years, revisiting and reliving my personal SCI experience is never easy, but hopefully my last 57 years will inspire others to see what is possible,” said Pergson who is now 74 years old. “Whether complete or incomplete, every individual SCI injury is different. The journey to recovery is physical and mental but what makes the difference is long-term quality of care and quality of life. The key to survival is a ‘never give up’ attitude."

Over the years, Pergson went to college and worked in various jobs. He is quick to point out that the support of family and friends has made an enormous difference in his life starting with his mother’s never-ending love and belief in his recovery and continuing with his wife and daughter who doctors called a miracle baby.

“My family never gave up on hope and instilled in me a passion for living my life every day, in every moment,” said Pergson. “I take great joy in seeing my three grandchildren grow up and marry; I enjoy the smell and warmth of a family gathering around Thanksgiving table and listening to my friends bragging about their great everyday triumphs.”

Although there can be many long days and nights, Pergson believes that reconciling with and accepting moment by moment, day by day living is an important way to manage the fear of isolation and loss of independence that often comes with living with a spinal cord injury.

"Your quality and awareness in your everyday surroundings is your lifeline to your long-term SCI quality of life," said Pergson. “I like the idea of finding a new adventure every day, taking precious advantage of the life and times God gave me. I focus on being able to love, to cry, to never want to give in and using everything, every muscle in my broken paralyzed body that the Casa Colina Rehab Center was able to find.”

Pergson points out that our perception and definition of quality of life often changes over time. As a young person, we mostly focus on physical abilities, leisure activities and employment, but as we get older, we place more emphasis on the importance of family, love and social relationships.

“Quality of life for spinal cord injury survivors increases over time, particularly after thefirst year,” said Pergson. “The quality of life for anyone is not confined to the disability in our lives, but the ability to adjust and continue to find self-worth in living and searching for happiness. Just look at Stephen Hawking and what he was able to accomplish.”

As one can imagine, Pergson is also thankful for the advancements in medicine and technology available today. He uses the internet and Facebook regularly to connect to information and others living with a spinal cord injury. He often turns to the Reeve Foundation website as a valuable resource.

“One of the greatest strides over the years has been in the ability to live more comfortably,” said Pergson. “Improvements in pain management, wheelchair positioning and hygiene care have made an enormous difference as has the focus on SCI financial needs and adaptive technology which help me to enjoy life to its fullest potential.”

Although he is thrilled with these huge breakthroughs, Pergson strongly supports the need for additional funding to bring more awareness and advocacy in finding a permanent cure for spinal cord injuries.

“It’s like taking a rocket to the moon. Everyone thought it was impossible until we did it. A cure for paralysis is out there,” said Pergson. “Christopher Reeve lived almost 10 years after his spinal cord injury and spoke eloquently about moving forward. He viewed his time after his injury as a difficult, but ‘extraordinary journey’ and I couldn’t agree more.”

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.