George Gallego
George Gallego
George Gallego
George Gallego
George Gallego

On March 5, 1992, I sustained a work-related injury that changed my entire way of life, including my perspective on everything.  At the age of 25, I fell from a 3rd floor loft and landed on a concrete floor.  As a result of the devastating impact, I had severed my spinal cord.


Redefining Life


Prior to my accident, I had lived a very active life: I had studied Martial Arts, hiked and camped out on a regular basis, swam 3-4 times per week, etc. After my accident, I lived an extremely sedentary life—mainly because I was consuming strong medication to combat the excruciating pain I was experiencing due to my injury. As a result, I went from 180 to 350 pounds! After a rude awakening, I began a campaign to embrace my new way of life. It took many, many years to complete the healing of mind, body, and spirit. Eventually, I began a rigorous exercise routine that included: cardiovascular workouts, strength building exercises, and 15-20 miles daily pushing in my everyday wheelchair. At the same time I strengthened my mind. I stopped relying on pain medication, so whenever I felt pain, I simply exercised. That regime caused the body to release natural painkillers, and the nerve pain subsided. By 2005 I had lost over 100 pounds. It was then that someone suggested that I compete as a wheelchair athlete.


Competing Nationally and Internationally


I began competing in short distance races and gradually increased my stamina and then my distances.  In 2006, I participated in my first marathon.  It was after my 4th marathon that I was exposed to the world of triathlons.  It seemed like a challenge that I definitely wanted to experience.  Just imagine a wheelchair athlete competing in a sport that requires an open swim, followed by a bike race, and finally a foot race!  And so I began training for all three aspects of the triathlon in order to compete in the Nautica NYC Olympic distance race.  On July 22, 2007, I placed 2nd in my division.  As a result of my performance, I was invited to join Team USA and competed in the Triathlon World Championships in Hamburg, Germany.  I placed 5th in the world.  It was an honor to be able to represent people who are physically challenged and the U.S.A. in one venue!

On April 10, 2008 I was formally accepted on to the Para Triathlon National Team. Since then I have represented the US in over 30 National and International competitions—in addition to three World Championship Races.


Flying and Landing


From 2005-2008, I worked ardently to make another of my dreams—to fly—a reality.  As a paraplegic, I encountered many obstacles, and I was able to overcome all of them but one. The first step was to obtain authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. I was required to submit to an arduous physical examination administered by an F.A.A. Aviation Examiner. The final decision was deferred to F.A.A. Headquarters.  After 8 months of struggling with the “powers that be,” I finally succeeded and obtained a Class II Medical/ Student Pilot Certificate (a prerequisite to obtain a Commercial Pilot License). Initially, I was told that as a paraplegic I would never be able to fly.  After conducting in-depth research, I was able to locate an engineer who was willing to help design and create a hand-control that I could use to make flying a plane a reality.  Next, I had to locate a Flight School that was capable of specialized training.  To my surprise there were only two schools in the United States that were willing to give lessons to a person with a physical disability:  one in Mississippi and the other in Farmingdale, NY.  Needless to say, I chose to attend the school that was closest:  Farmingdale.  I began my flight training in the summer of 2006. All was going well until the beginning of 2008. The flight school upgraded the entire fleet of airplanes, which meant that my hand-controls had become obsolete. I had to reconstruct my existing hand-controls and then have them tested and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. This certification process was slated to take up to 2 years to complete. In the meantime, I encountered a final obstacle: because of the recession experienced by the U.S. economy in 2008, the Academy of Aviation downsized dramatically.   Since I was also the Operations Manager at the school,  I not only lost the ability to achieve a dream, I also lost a job and a career.

From the time of my accident, I have acquired a special skill—one that is accessible to all human beings but utilized by only a few!  I have developed the ability to re-invent myself when absolutely necessary.  After careful consideration, I realized that I needed to acquire targeted skills and more knowledge to become self-sustaining.  I, therefore, decided to further my education.  In Fall 2008, I re-enrolled at Mercy College on a full time basis. I completed my bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management and a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership by September 2011.  Armed with the both knowledge and credentials, I felt empowered and self-reliant.


Mentoring


As a veteran in the world of disability, I feel compelled to offer my assistance to recently injured men, women, and children.  Most people need support in adjusting to a totally altered existence.  I have made it my duty to be available to dialogue with these patients to answer questions and provide emotional support early in their rehab or when they are close to being discharged and ready to return to society.  Most often the newly injured mainly need someone to talk to as they try to rebuild their lives after injury and who better than a person who has rolled the road ahead of them.  As a peer mentor, I share the knowledge of community resources and coping skills I have discovered in the 20+ years since I was injured.  I give them the “reality” of the situation and also the hope that they can make it if they choose to.


Creating Solutions:  Wheels of Progress


Through mentoring, I learned that there was a major gap in the socio-economic system that caused an entire segment of society to be ignored for years. Most people do not live in wheelchair accessible homes. Some live in buildings with steps; others live in homes that have very narrow entrances and spaces with very little maneuvering room. When a person of any age has an accident and becomes spinal cord injured, he or she is taken to a hospital for stabilization, treatment, and therapy. Ultimately, the individual is discharged. Some folks are able to go home and some folks are not. Those who are not able to return to their homes because of inaccessibility issues are placed in nursing homes. This solution not only separates these people from living in the community, it is also extremely costly (up to $15,000 per month).

I founded Wheels of Progress, a nonprofit organization (501c3), as an alternative to institutional living. We envision a world in which young people living with spinal cord injuries and other physical disabilities are no longer prisoners in nursing homes, in their homes, or in their minds but instead are able to develop the will and the skill to embrace their new reality and to reinvent their lives. The ultimate mission of Wheels of Progress is to create affordable, accessible, supportive housing, and provide transformative environments, education, and experiences for persons living with spinal cord injuries or other physical disabilities. Wheels of Progress has fashioned an innovative approach: we will combine apartment-style housing with personal care and services. As a result, people will be able to live independently with dignity and will be able to enjoy the freedom of community living as opposed to institutionalization—as is their right under the Supreme Court ruling in the Olmstead Decision of 1999..

I have made it my life ’s work is to create environments in which others have the opportunity to develop to their full human potential….


Summing Up


If there is one thing a person living with a disability—and indeed all people actually—must learn is:  you alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone.  My life is a testament to that.   I thank everyone who has helped me along in my journey….

I will end with a poem I wrote in the midst of Hurricane Irene, August 28, 2011.  It reflects some thoughts I have about coping with the challenges of life.


A Force to be Reckoned With


I lie in darkness
And think I am alone.
I anticipate total silence
But what presents is contrary.
Listen, listen to the sounds.
As my mind races
I try to understand:
Is this friend or foe?
Odorless, invisible
    (It surrounds me.)
Strong enough to annihilate cities
    (It approaches me.)
Gusting through life yet making music with the chimes
    (It confuses me.)
Don't try to understand.
Acknowledge and acquiesce.
It’s a force to be reckoned with.
Embrace it and move on.