After a traumatic spinal cord injury like the one William "Zev" Rosenberg suffered, most people would consider just walking again to be a major feat, let alone running in this Sunday's Philadelphia Marathon. Rosenberg of Edison, N.J., however, was determined to regain his racing legs.
Rosenberg, 52, has always drawn inspiration from the people of his synagogue, Congregation Ahavas Yisrael, and it was their love and support, as well as that of his family and friends, that gave him the strength to endure the painful road back from a 2013 work accident that occurred when he was just days away from competing in the New Jersey Marathon.
As a mechanical contractor and owner of Raritan Air Water Power Service, Rosenberg was working in a customer's home when he hit his head on a low overhead. The alignment of his head with his spine during the blow caused several vertebrae to be crushed.
"I felt the feeling flow out of my body, and then I fell down the stairs," he recounted.
In his line of work, oftentimes he was alone in a customer's home and it could have been seven to eight hours until somebody came home and found him. Luckily, the homeowners happened to be home that fateful day. An ambulance was called and he was rushed to the hospital.
Paralyzed from the neck down, he had to undergo instrumental fusion on his C-3 to T-2 vertebrae. He spent a week in the hospital and then was sent to Kessler Institute in West Orange for rehabilitation.
"The first night at Kessler was a little scary because I knew tomorrow was D Day," he said. "That was the day I would see my limitations, what I actually would be able to do."
His type of injury is called an incomplete injury, which differs from the type of injury suffered by actor Christopher Reeve. Reeve's complete injury is indicated by a total lack of sensory and motor function below the level of injury. In Rosenberg's situation, his doctors had hoped that he would regain most if not all of his abilities, but at the beginning of his long journey there was still a lot of uncertainty.
"Because you can't do anything until cleared by the physicians, an attendant has to get you to the gym that first day of therapy. He removes you from your bed in a sling and then places you in a wheelchair to transport you."
Rosenberg was also still very weak in his upper body. His one arm was completely paralyzed and his other arm didn't have enough strength even to plug in his phone charger.
"At Kessler, they teach you first how to stand up and then how to walk. I had to learn how to walk again, and I didn't have enough arm strength to hold on to the walker," he said.
Although he grew frustrated when he felt he wasn't recovering as quickly as he would like in the beginning, he forced himself to stay focused.
"I pushed myself so that I could see more improvements, and I did. I kept telling myself that if I can stand, then I can walk, and then maybe even run again."
What really aided in Rosenberg's recovery was that he was a runner and in good shape before his accident.
He is also appreciative of the therapists who work with him. "The staff at Kessler is really great and offers a positive atmosphere," he added.
Having completed the Philadelphia Marathon two years before his accident, Rosenberg was determined to still participate in 2013, so he signed up for the half marathon. He ended up mostly walking it, but he did pick up speed for the last mile. Running aggravated his injury so his therapist gave him the idea to run a few steps and then walk a few.
"I tried running downhill and walking uphill, and then the last mile I just went for it," he said.
"What kept me going was the tremendous amount of support from my synagogue and the community of Edison. I wanted to show appreciation for all the help I received. They wanted to see me recover, and I wanted to do my part."
He felt so great afterward that he knew he was ready for more. "After running that one mile, I thought maybe I can run the full 26.2, so I had six months to train to see if I could at the New Jersey Marathon."
This Sunday, he is back at the Philadelphia Marathon and he is running the full marathon with his middle daughter Ziesel. He has four kids, a son and three daughters. "She told me that if I can do it, then she can, too."
When asked how he has been training for this year's event, he described a disciplined routine of running short lengths three times a week and a long run every Sunday, which grew incrementally longer. He is still in physical therapy but his therapist thinks what he is doing is great as long as he doesn't hurt himself.
"Therapists deal with a lot of challenges when working with patients with spinal cord injuries so they love to see them succeed. For most patients they deal with, every movement has a price," he said.
Rosenberg found that there were not many people his age at the gym where he did his therapy. Most patients were either the elderly who took a bad fall or younger people who had been in a car accident or were injured in a pool.
"When you are younger, sometimes it is hard to be as disciplined as you need to be, and when you are older, each movement is that much harder."
What makes Rosenberg's journey to the marathon this year so inspiring is not just how far he has come in his recovery, but the fact that he will run the race while still having disabilities in all four limbs. He still suffers from neuropathy, a constant numbness and tingling and reduced sensations that causes trouble with his balance.
"I can walk and run, but my right side is more affected than the left side and my upper body more affected than my lower body. I really have to focus when running or walking or I will fall down."
When Rosenberg crosses the finish line this year, he plans on raising his arms in the universal sign of victory. It will be extra poignant, as not only is the race itself a victory, but so is simply putting his arms in the air to express his triumph. "I haven't been able to do that yet," he added.
Read all of the profiles, tips and coverage of the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon at philly.com/phillymarathon. Don't forget to join us there on race day to follow the action live.