Injured Gent refuses to give up hope |

Injured Gent refuses to give up hope

Jon Maletz

Patrick Culley’s life is filled with small objectives these days. Folding his own clothes. Brushing his teeth. Frying sausages. Spending weekends on his own for the first time in nearly two years. For Culley, who is two years removed from a rugby injury that paralyzed him from the chest down, reality is sinking in.”Right after the injury, I was so focused on the now and I expected to stand up and walk one day,” the former scrumhalf for the Gentlemen of Aspen said Wednesday in a telephone interview from his apartment in Carlsbad, Calif. “I’m now realizing that this is a long process. Nothing’s going to happen overnight.”It was on May 1, 2004, that Culley’s life forever changed. He picked up a loose ball during a match in Boston and collided with an opposing forward. During the struggle Culley landed on his head, fracturing the cervical vertebrae in his neck and crushing a disk. During his first week at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Culley contracted both pneumonia and the E. coli virus.The details of that day remain foggy, Culley said, but he never forgets. He is reminded when he watches the game he loves on television. He is reminded by the everyday struggles. While he waits to begin an online AutoCAD course this summer – the first step towards his ambition to become a landscape architect – Culley’s days are centered around maintenance and strength and conditioning, he said. Culley spends nine hours each week working out in the gym, building arm and leg muscle. A stand helps keep him upright at home, keeping weight on his bones in an effort to ward off osteoporosis and density loss. The regimen includes repetitive movement to strengthen signals between the brain and the nervous system. Keeping the neurons firing is key. To this day, Culley has little sustained feeling in his legs and is primarily confined to a wheelchair. He has one-third the normal feeling on the interior of his arms, stretching from his biceps to his wrists. He can feel a deep touch on the outside of his arms, but not cold, heat or pain. While function in his hands is nominal, Culley can grasp objects. He can eat with a fork or spoon, but not use a steak knife. While he said he is close to the complete independence, he is limited because of a lack of feeling in his triceps. Such a restriction dictates how much he can push himself in a wheelchair.”I have my days where there’s discouragement, but kind of try to stay as positive as possible,” Culley said. “I know how much worse it could really be. I’ve got my arms.”The process is slow and difficult for a man who was an integral part of the Gents right out of Humboldt State University in 2004. While he lives with a roommate, the ordeal is often lonely. There is, however, a large group of people in Culley’s corner. In an effort to help him pay the bills he accrued during a rehab program that routinely runs $4,000 per month and to help him live a more secure life, the Gents have stepped in to aid a comrade in need. To date, the team has raised more than $100,000, Culley said.”The support from the club has been tremendous,” he said. “Without their support, I’d probably be in a power chair, sitting at home … doing some telemarketing. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. It’s nice to have a little spot in Aspen rugby.”I have a pretty good life because of them.”The Gents will host a barbecue at 4 p.m. Saturday to raise money for the cause at Koch Lumber Park on the corner of Garmisch and Cooper streets. The barbecue will follow the match for the Culley Cup between Aspen and Vail at Wagner Park.Coming to Culley’s aid was a duty and responsibility, Gents player Bryan McShane said Wednesday.”We can’t forget someone who played for us and someone who was injured wearing our stripes,” McShane said. “We want him to know that we’re not leaving him out there on his own.” The team immediately stepped in to raise money in 2004 after the magnitude of Culley’s accrued medical expenses became apparent, McShane said. The idea, which first-year Gents coach Steve Blair and his players vigorously support, is sure to continue.”Pat is a strong individual with strong character, and he’s very appreciative,” McShane said. “I think he’s made an incredible adjustment in terms of his attitude, and we want to keep encouraging him not to give up and to make the best of a bad situation.”Culley has been humbled and overwhelmed by the support he has garnered. People he doesn’t even know have sent letters of encouragement. An old friend went into a house Culley used to live in, ripped out a few old-growth redwood boards, built a shield and attached a plaque to it; the winner of the annual Culley Shield Match between Humboldt State and Santa Rosa Junior College hoists the trophy. Culley will travel to Aspen on Friday for the weekend’s festivities, and express his gratitude to a team and a town that have supported his cause.Culley’s body is changing, which is a good sign, he said. He is stronger and has experienced new muscle spasms in his legs and his hips recently. Because of his higher stamina, Culley could wheel himself around Target a few weeks back. He carried his own basket and checked out at the register. Culley misses moving the ball around. He misses the smell of the grass. He has passed the two-year period in which most doctors say the bulk of progress will come.Although reality and time have clouded his initial outlook, Culley is undaunted. He may never walk again or run across a pitch, but he plans on living a fulfilled life. One small step at a time.”It’s the little battles that get you through,” he said. “If I sat here and constantly thought about getting up and walking, I wouldn’t get anywhere.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is

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