Just over a year ago, Robert Ward left his home in Alexandria, Virginia on a sunny, Friday morning. He was headed to work on a plot of land he and his wife purchased in rural West Virginia where they planned to build a cabin.
When he did not return on Sunday as planned, his wife began to worry and alerted the rural fire and rescue.
She was right to worry. While riding his ATV the day before, the trail partially collapsed from under his right front wheel. He rolled 20 feet and landed in a ditch between two rocks, sustaining a broken neck at his 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae and a spinal cord injury.
For 21 hours, Robert lay in the ditch without food or drink, and unable to move anything except for his left hand and foot. His dogs Max and Indigo provided warmth beside him and covered his body in plastic scraps, leaves and dirt for protection. It was these amazing dogs that led the paramedics up the mountain to Robert's rescue.
This mission marked the beginning of Robert's recovery journey. He spent 3 weeks in intensive care and underwent neck surgery at West Virginia University Hospital prior to coming to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
When Robert first arrived at Magee, he could not move the right side of his body at all, and had only a little movement in his left arm and leg. He spent several months as an inpatient prior to beginning outpatient therapy at Magee Riverfront, and very slowly learned to take his first steps again.
One of five children, Robert was very competitive growing up because he always wanted to be as athletic as his older siblings. It was his older brother, John, who taught him the pride that comes from experiencing success in sports, including basketball, football and baseball. Prior to his accident, Robert enjoyed jogging at a 7-minute pace and biking many miles—he would easily run 13 miles or bike 45 miles during his regular workouts.
Today, he is fortunate to be walking a slow but steady pace with two forearm crutches—and it requires much more effort than running or completing triathlons ever did.
One exercise at a time, Robert attacks his recovery as a full-time job, working out at Magee Riverfront's Health & Wellness Center.
"I never stopped believing that I would get my strength and ability to walk back," he says.
When asked what keeps him motivated, Robert keeps thinking of the conceptual belief that he will get back to walking in normal fashion. When someone tells him he can't do something, it just motivates him to try harder. Although he will never be satisfied until he gets back his previous abilities, he has learned to be satisfied enough to like his life now. "Don't fret the past. Live in the present but think towards the future. When something bad happens, it will get better tomorrow. If not tomorrow, next week."
This past June 9th marked the 1st anniversary of Robert's accident. To celebrate this date, he completed a one-mile walk on crutches with his wife Binal and friend Rebecca Levenberg through historic Philadelphia which took him 2 hours to complete. They followed him with a wheelchair, which he did not use. His next goal is to complete a 2-mile walk in two hours or under.
Although Robert is saddened by the things that he is unable to do such as walking his dogs, spending time in the mountains, or using his computer easily, he finds the unknown the most difficult part of his recovery. "When I make progress, it is a very small step in a very long journey."
He continually tries new things that are difficult. "If I never try, if I never take calculated risks; I will never know what I am capable of," he reasons.
He encourages people recovering from accidents to stay positive. "The hardest thing that you are going to fight is your own self. In your head, you will think of everything that you have lost," Robert shares. "But every little modest gain is a step towards independence and gaining back those abilities."
The therapists at Magee could not agree more.