Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Paralyzed veteran raises money for therapy center in Tampa


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.

• • •

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.''

• • •

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 or (813) 226-3435.

. fast facts

StayInStep details

For information about

StayInStep, go to

Paralyzed veteran raises money for therapy center in Tampa 07/03/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 3, 2014 10:36am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Feeling mental fatigue after Hurricane Irma and other disasters? It's real.


    TAMPA — Blackness. Eyes closed or open, the same.

    A Tampa Bay Times reporter in a sensory deprivation tank used for floating therapy at Sacred Floats & Gems Co. located at 6719 N Nebraska Avenue, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. Floating therapy relaxes people because they experience a sense of zero gravity when they are inside the tank, which contains 150 gallons of water and 1000 pounds of medical grade Epsom salt. ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times
  2. Trump vows more sanctions on North Korea


    President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to impose more sanctions on North Korea as he prepared to meet with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea to seek a common strategy in confronting the isolated nuclear-armed state.

    U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 19, 2017. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 in New York described as "the sound of a dog barking" Trump's threat to destroy his country. [Associated Press]
  3. Tampa chamber of commerce votes against tax increase on business property


    TAMPA — The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce on Thursday voted against supporting a city of Tampa plan to raise taxes on commercial properties in the city for 2018. The property tax, included in the city's proposed $974 million budget, would boost taxes from $5.73 to $6.33 for every $1,000 in property value.

    The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce voted against supporting a city tax hike on commercial property. Pictured is Bob Rohrlack, CEO of the chamber. | [Times file photo]
  4. How should St. Pete make up for dumping all that sewage? How about a street sweeper?


    Every crisis has a silver lining.

    In the case of St. Petersburg’s sewage crisis, which spawned state and federal investigations and delivered a state consent decree ordering the city to fix a dilapidated sewer system, the upside is figuring out how to satisfy the $810,000 civil penalty levied by the Florida …

    City Council chairwoman Darden Rice said it was important to chose carefully because residents will be paying attention.
  5. A boy and a girl stare at the camera from their house after Hurrciane Maria hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, September 20, 2017. The strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years destroyed hundreds of homes, knocked out power across the entire island and turned some streets into raging rivers in an onslaught that could plunge the U.S. territory deeper into financial crisis. [Associated Prss]