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Paraplegic, 36, turns anger into determination

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Less than two years ago, Jack Reed, active and athletic, stood 6 feet 4. Now he sits in his wheelchair, with his angry lion's head 4{ feet above the floor.

"I'm totally vulnerable, and I'll never get used to it," he says. "If somebody decides to do something to me, there is nothing I can do to stop them."

For the first year after the accident that left him a paraplegic, Reed, 36, was furious _ at fate, at the world that did not share his terrible luck, at himself for not knowing he was diving into Lake Tarpon in a spot that was only 4-feet deep.

"I dealt with things by yelling. It was not a wonderful way to handle my disaster, but sometimes I felt it was the only way I could defend myself."

He spent six months at Bayfront Hospital in St. Petersburg, then four months in a nursing home, waiting to get into the live-in program at Abilities, a training center for the disabled in Clearwater.

"The nursing home was hell. I regressed, mentally, as well as physically.

"The place didn't know how to treat spinal cases. Do you know what it's like when somebody is trying to catheterize you and isn't doing it right? And won't listen when you tell them what should be done?

"So I got a little extreme. How?" He laughs grimly. "I told them to get the blankety-blank out of my room."

He sighs, shrugs. "There were some good people there _ and some that just didn't care."

Reed arrived at Abilities on July 29. "I needed more than training in how to take care of myself. I needed to come to grips with me."

He did it the hard way _ with anger and defiance and an occasional bout with a bottle or a can.

"I did some drinking," he admits. "Not because I needed to or even wanted to. But they said, "Don't drink,' and that was all I needed to hear. I did it right in the open. I'd sit with a can of Molson right out in the parking lot where everybody could see me."

"He was ornery and difficult," says Frank Delucia of the Abilities staff. Then Delucia smiles; despite all, Reed obviously is one of his favorite clients. "Finally, we told him to behave or get out."

But Reed already was getting his life in order. "I decided I wasn't ready to quit. There were lots of things I wanted to do in the years to come."

He also accepted the fact that he no longer could be as completely in control of his life as he always had preferred. He had been on his own since 18, had worked for Phar-Mor in his native Ohio, had been brought to Florida to be co-manager of the company's store in Countryside.

"I put 10 years of my life into Phar-Mor. Since my accident, I haven't heard from a single person high up in the company."

He doesn't remember a lot about the accident. "I was underwater and not feeling pain. But my body must have been twisted because I could see the backs of my legs.

"I remember somebody pulling me out and a little bit of the helicopter ride." He was in intensive care for two months, on a respirator with his lungs collapsed, in rehab for three months, all at Bayfront.

Then Dr. Karen Williams, who had seen him through terrible days, told him this was pretty much it, he would not get a lot better.

"She was wonderful," he said. "We both cried."

Reed is on the mend. Long before he graduated, last March, he had stopped giving the staff at Abilities a hard time. Now he gives lectures on behalf of the place. He sees his two children often. He was divorced before the accident.

On his own now, Reed shares an apartment with his father in Fort Myers. "I drink lemonade," he says staunchly.

In the fall, he will enter the local community college.