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Family fights tragedy with strength

(ran North edition of PASCO TIMES)

Once a star offensive lineman for Springstead High, Tom Chiarello took easily to outdoor work: He stood a few inches over 6 feet, weighed 365 pounds, and benched 405. His buddies called him "The Big T."

Now that nickname is attached not to accolades for his physical prowess, but to pleas at fundraisers to help his family pay his medical bills.

On Sept. 27, Tom was thrown from a Bobcat while working to clean up damage from Hurricane Jeanne. He fractured his right arm and broke his neck.

His spine was crushed and bruised; two vertebrae broke. Tom is now paralyzed from the waist down and faces a long, draining rehabilitation before he can hope to walk again.

The accident has transformed the Chiarello home. Alarm clocks beep throughout the day and intercoms squawk with conversation.

The master bedroom now houses Tom, 23, who sleeps on a light brown, special bed that resembles a thick gym mattress. It is not comfortable. Tom said he often wakes up "feeling really beat up."

It has also altered the lives of Tom's parents, Barbara, 49, and Guido, 52. Both are longtime educators in Hernando County schools, and both are now learning the hard lesson of how to care for their injured son.

Take getting Tom ready in the morning, for example. One person sleeps in the room with him and when he wakes, lifts him out of his bed slowly. He is placed in his chair with a metal ring that encircles his head called a halo. Barbara brushes his teeth, taking care not to scrape the roof of his mouth, and then they dress him.

For breakfast, they feed him scrambled eggs with mushrooms (a favorite), and put a straw in his mouth so he can sip orange juice.

That's just breakfast, a fraction of the tasks they do every day. They also turn him regularly so he doesn't get bedsores, put on movies like Van Helsing so he doesn't get bored, and keep his spirits up.

Then there are the bigger issues. The Chiarellos are still not sure where Tom will go for rehabilitation or what exactly health insurance will cover.

"I think there's insurance that can help," Barbara said.

"No Mom, he's on Medicaid," said Tom's sister, Leanne, 26.

Still, the family has had some help. Many people in the area know the Chiarellos, and many of them have been gathering donations.

Friends from school, former football teammates and cousins have all chipped in. Barbara said that they had managed to raise "several thousand dollars" for Tom so far.

"Everybody I've known is helping," Tom said.

But Barbara also pointed out: "We're getting mega bills."

It could cost as much as $8,000 to purchase a special mattress that would ease Tom's pain when he sleeps. And to transport Tom out of the house, the family has to do a lot of work.

They rely on an ambulance. Barbara said they had once taken him out in a paint truck.

Tom now weighs about 325 pounds. But he instructed his parents to keep his membership at Gold's Gym. He said he plans to hit the weights again as his recovery progresses.

The accident has also postponed Tom's education. He had recently received an associate's degree from Pasco-Hernando Community College and was planning to attend the University of Central Florida.

In the interim, he took the job with Rite Guys Tree Service around the beginning of this year's hurricane season.

The driver of the Bobcat, a bull-dozer-like machine, drove off the road on Sep. 27. Tom, who was standing in the back, was thrown over, and landed on the claws.

After spending several weeks at Bayfront Medical Center, he was taken to Tampa General. He spent 81 days living in hospitals, and watched hundreds of movies. Tom came home in early December.

Tom said he can feel his body recovering. The feeling in his legs is coming back slowly, very slowly.

He can wiggle his toes. And he can feel pressure, as well as heat and coldness.

"Every day it gets better and better," Tom said.

There is another reason he feels better. The Chiarellos say that Tom's injury has brought them together, in a home where the fridge is covered with family photographs.

They don't dispute that times are tough, but they also say their family is as well. Tom said nothing lifted his spirits more than coming home for the holidays.

"It's all I wanted for Christmas," he said.

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at or 352-848-1431.


Donations can be made to Thomas Chiarello at Compass Bank, 401 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill, FL 34609-5680. An account has been opened under his name.

Above, Tom Chiarello, 23, gets a back rub from his sister Leanne, 26, after dinner at their parents' Spring Hill home. Since Tom was injured in September doing hurricane cleanup, the Chiarello family has rallied to take care of him. "He's been really inspirational as far as finding strength," Leanne said. "It's made me realize how important it is to have friends and family that really care about you and to see how important Tom is in everybody's life." At right, Tom's mother, Barbara, 49, and his father, Guido, 52, get help from Leanne as they move Tom from his bed to a wheelchair.

Guido Chiarello jokes with Tom Chiarello near the pool. Former teammates from Tom's days as a Springstead High football standout have raised money for the family.