Twice a week, Gabriela Camargo and her husband, Romulo, get up before dawn to get him dressed, settled in his wheelchair and ready for the two-hour trip to Longwood, near Orlando, for the kind of intense, long-term physical therapy they hope will one day get him walking again.
After Romulo undergoes three hours of guided workouts on advanced exercise machines at Project Walk — a therapy center unlike any in the Tampa Bay area, they say — they fight the traffic back.
"I-4 is crazy!'' says Gabriela, adding that the couple usually arrives back home in New Tampa about 3:30 p.m.
After about a year of the routine, Gaby, as she's called, decided that she and "Romy'' should open a nonprofit intensive therapy center in Tampa.
"I thought it was a crazy idea,'' said Romy, an Army Special Forces officer who was shot in the neck and paralyzed from the shoulders down during an ambush in Afghanistan in 2008.
But the more he thought about it, the more he liked the plan.
They seem to be on their way, having collected about $216,000 in corporate and individual donations toward the $750,000 they figure they'll need for two years of operating expenses. They hope to open the StayInStep spinal cord injury therapy center in north Tampa in the fall.
Romy, a chief warrant officer 3, remains on active duty until his retirement next spring after 20 years in the service.
In 2011, Dr. Carlos Lima of Portugal, a pioneer in the use of stem cell surgery to stimulate nerve regeneration in spinal cord injury patients, operated on Romy, taking stem cells from tissue inside Romy's nose and transferring them to site of the injury.
Lima, who died in 2012, would agree to perform the surgery only if patients would commit to at least two years of intense physical therapy, said Dr. John Merritt, who retired as chief of the Spinal Cord Injury Center at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and acts as chief medical adviser for StayInStep.
Whether the combination of stem cell surgery and intensive and long-term physical therapy can stimulate nerves to regain function depends on the individual and the injury, Merritt said, noting that Lima had some success with patients.
"It is a new frontier,'' Merritt said, adding that successful cases "have been few and far between.''
He said intense therapy helps all people with spinal cord injuries because it reduces the chance of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, urinary tract infections and pneumonia.
Romy, who undergoes traditional therapy at Haley on the other three weekdays, said StayInStep, like Project Walk, will employ an "activity-based and exercise-based therapy using the natural movement of the weight of the body, and using functional electrical (stimulation) training, lots of gait training (walking movements), muscle memory training and use of state-of-the-art equipment.''
The plan is for StayInStep to serve both military veterans and civilians with spinal cord injuries. The Camargos plan to provide massage therapy, too. And they'll have an activities room for children, with toys, books and television to keep them occupied while a parent goes through therapy. Gaby said she decided on that after spending hours juggling their then-18-month-old son, Andress, while waiting for Romy to get therapy. Andress is now 7.
The two also want to establish a family support group, because a spinal cord injury affects everyone. "The whole family gets depressed,'' she said.
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Romy was wounded during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was second in command of a unit wrapping up a humanitarian mission — providing medical treatment and other care to villagers — when insurgents opened fire. The enemy fighter that day got in a "lucky shot'' from far away, as Romy described it. It ricocheted off his C-3 vertebra, shattering the bone and damaging, but not severing, his spinal cord.
His fellow soldiers saw him drop. As his unit fought to repel the attack, two soldiers, still under fire, turned his limp body over and performed a tracheotomy.
According to the Camargos' accounts, as posted on the StayInStep website, a doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center told Gaby that her husband would never walk again. After the doctor left the room, Romy looked at his wife and said, "The doctor doesn't know me, does he.''
The two stay optimistic, Gaby said.
"I believe in God and Jesus 100 percent. And to be honest with you, that's the key to everything, our faith. During this 5 1/2 years, we have been believing that he's going to walk someday.''
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Romy thinks the self-discipline and problem solving that come with military training helped him, along with the continued support of the soldiers in his unit.
"Just the camaraderie, the team spirit that we had, the one big family I had. I was blessed to have a team like I had when I was injured, because they took care of me and made sure that they did what they needed to do to keep me alive and medevac me out of the area.''
It took five months in the hospital for the staff to medically stabilize him. He attributes his ability to wean himself from a ventilator and breathe on his own to his Special Forces dive training.
"After that, I started taking control of my care, of how I wanted to be set in my chair, how I wanted my clothes to look, how I wanted my hair to look, so I could stay motivated and just continue being the person I was,'' he said.
Loyalty, another trait prized by soldiers, helped out here.
"I felt like I owed it to my wife, and my teammates that kept me alive, not to change.''
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.