Paralyzed Gent rebuilds his life
Pat Culley feels it when his mom or girlfriend touches his ankles, feet and toes.The 25-year-old Gentlemen of Aspen rugby player has sensation in his chest and back, a little on his stomach, and right knee and thigh, too. He uses his arms and wrists, but not his hands.Not yet.His triceps muscles are “flickering – they’re really not firing,” he said, and “I don’t have my fingers, but I had my right index finger wiggling for a while. It went back to sleep, which is kind of strange.”And when I try to move my legs, I get surges of warm energy going down my legs. It’s kind of a cool feeling, like there’s something in there.”Culley, a native of Santa Rosa, Calif., moved to Aspen last summer to play with the Gents’ summer league team. He had just graduated in May from Humboldt State University in California with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He moved back in February, full time, to play with the Gents in the 2004 USA Rugby Super League season. He worked at Genre Bistro and Paradise Bakery.On May 1, late in a blowout win at Boston, the rookie scrumhalf was paralyzed in an awkward, twisting collision with the ground and other players.Three weeks ago, in Atlanta, Culley made the transition to a manual wheelchair. Doctors had originally thought his injury would confine him to an electric wheelchair.And last week, doctors reclassified his injury as “sensory incomplete” – meaning there’s a greater likelihood he will regain some sensation or movement, as compared with his original, “complete” prognosis.Saturday near Atlanta Culley was reunited with many of his Gentlemen of Aspen teammates for the first time at a rugby tournament hosted by Life University – the first of what will be an annual Pat Culley Invitational (www.passthehatforpat.com).
On Aug. 20, at the Sky Hotel in Aspen, the Gentlemen of Aspen are throwing a benefit party for Culley, with live music and a silent auction.In a telephone interview yesterday from Atlanta, Culley said he will “definitely” be in Aspen for the benefit party and Aspen’s annual Ruggerfest tournament in September.”It’s pretty crazy that that many people care,” he said. “It’s heartwarming. People from all over the country, people I don’t even know, are sending me letters.”Culley’s story, though, touches a nerve with people.Rushed to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on May 1, conscious for the “crunch,” ambulance ride and thereafter, Culley was operated on late that night to stabilize his injury. He had fractured a cervical vertebrae in his neck and crushed the disk between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebras. And though he didn’t sever his spinal cord, it was compressed and damaged.Then, during that first week, he contracted pneumonia, then the E. Coli virus.”A real slow start, to begin with,” he said.On May 10, a jet whisked him to Atlanta to a spinal cord rehabilitation center. There, surrounded by his mom, Debbie, his siblings (three brothers and two sisters) and friends, Culley struggled to come to terms with his injury and the challenges it presents.”The first month was rough,” he said. “But it’s getting better.”Now, nearly pain-free in his neck for the first time in two and a half months, Culley spends his days in occupational and physical therapy. This week, he moved into an apartment with Debbie and every day he undergoes rigorous rehab. “It’s like a graduate program for the inpatient,” he said.”Learning how to cook, dress myself, bathe myself, take care of my bowel bladder, then strength and conditioning, moving in a chair, transferring myself from the chair to a couch to a bed …
“My body’s always been a strong healer,” he continued. “And it’s a matter of adapting to the situation now, and then taking it day by day, really. And not getting too worked up about it. For a while there, I was pretty down. It was hard. But you get over it; I guess come to terms with it.”It still is hard, but you just try not to focus on it. You try to focus on doing exercises: start moving my wrists, start focusing on my fingers, start focusing on my feet, try to flex my calves.”It’s all about sending the brain signal – just keep sending it, keep sending it, keep sending it, and eventually it’s gonna get through. They say it takes awhile for these injuries to heal, and that’s why they say you’ve got two years or so when you can still get things back …”I didn’t really take too much stock in what the doctors told me to begin with, because you hear all sorts of stories where people are classified as ‘complete’ and they make a full recovery. Basically, they’re covering their back in the sense that they don’t want to give you false hopes. They don’t want to lie to you, so they give you the worst-case scenario and hope for the best.”Culley said his memory is foggy of his time in Boston after the injury.”All the breathing tubes up the nose and down the throat, all that crap,” he said. “Had a lot of visitors … but it’s kind of weird because I was there for 10 days, so doped up on drugs that I’ve got like an hour’s worth of memories. Strange.”Culley does, however, remember the accident.He scooped up the ball after it popped out of a ruck, then collided with a Boston forward. “He was a real big guy and I even drove him back because I had some leverage on him,” he said. “But this is where it gets a little foggy, just how I got onto my head. [Aspen teammate] Tasi [Mounga] came in to start a maul and basically from there I was on top of my head. Crunch.”Then being upended and kinda [falling] back on my back. My whole body went numb and my chest kinda – it didn’t collapse but I couldn’t really breath for probably 20 seconds. It was real hard to get some air. And ‘Choppy,’ Josh Porter, was the first one there and he put all fours around my neck and told everyone to blow the whistle and lay low. I think the ref called the game after that. Took the ambulance back with Mick [Melrose] and I think I went into surgery about 11 o’clock that night.”Melrose, Aspen’s first-year head coach, traveled with the team to Atlanta to see Culley this weekend. The Gents won the tournament, and Culley’s younger brother, a rugger himself, made his debut in the Aspen red-and-black to Pat’s delight.Said Melrose: “His rehab hasn’t gone just the way he hoped, but going down there, I think, gave him just as much of a boost as it gave us a boost.
“He was nervous to see us, and we were a bit nervous to see him, but it was great. Normal, actually. Just talking about normal stuff,” the Aussie coach added.The Life University rugby team has reached out to Culley, launching the tournament in his name and spending time with him and his family.Now, Culley said going out in public is one of the toughest things.”It’s just seeing other people who aren’t in your situation and being in this situation that you’re not used to being in. Just going from so fit and active, to just – overnight – being the exact opposite. Basically, it’s kind of jealousy, you know. I went to the Braves game on an outing, and you see everyone moving around.”It’s the little things that get you.”But Culley said he remains optimistic. When he’s ready, he plans to move back to Santa Rosa to be with his family.”Being at the hospital, I’ve seen a lot of other patients who are a lot worse off than I. Way worse off. And I’ve also seen some patients who scooted through the program and started walking again.”You’ve got to realize that it’s early yet and you can’t ever give up hope. It’s not the end of the world. So for me to consider myself stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, you know, it’s not a very good thought so I try not to focus on that. I try to focus on the chair as something that’s temporary, and I’m going to have to get around to the best of my ability and it’s going to help me in the short run. And then things will work out.”And I’ve gotta say, it was awesome watching some Aspen rugby this weekend – watch the boys kick some butt.”For more information on the Aug. 20 benefit for Culley, call Brady Emens at 920-0243 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Alpine Bank in Aspen also has an account set up for donations to help offset Culley’s medical expenses.Tim Mutrie’s e-mail is email@example.com
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