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Altman: Spinal injury center run by Green Beret and wife marks first year in business

Dora Amaral, 49, rear, observes Michael Lopez, 22, left, Jose Lopez, 22, right, helping with her son Derrik Amaral, 31, center, of Spring Hill with physical therapy by working on his lower body strength at the Stay in Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center on University Center Drive in Tampa.
Published Oct. 5, 2016

TAMPA — What started as an idea dreamed up by the wife of a paralyzed Green Beret is now a source of hope for those with spinal cord injuries.

Next week, a year after opening, the Stay In Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center is celebrating its first year with a gala dinner at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina.

"We want to thank Tampa Bay for all the support," says Romy Camargo, a medically retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 and member of the 7th Special Forces Group.

For Camargo and his wife Gabriella, life changed in 2008 when he was hit in the throat by a bullet from a Taliban sniper in Afghanistan.

Paralyzed and in need of help breathing, Camargo relied on his wife for everything from bathing to feeding. Unlike many military spouses faced with such situations, the former lawyer from Venezuela didn't leave. She stayed with her wounded husband and came up with the idea for the new center after making two grueling trips a week to a similar location in Orlando.

After a lot of work meeting with medical personnel and raising funds, the center opened in June 2015 , at 10500 University Center Drive, Suite 130, and now has more than 30 clients, served by eight staff. They are looking to add more specialized equipment to help those with spinal cord injuries regain functionality.

"We serve everybody from a 69-year-old Vietnam vet to 17-year-old high school student," Camargo says.

Among his clients was Queena Vuong, who survived a brutal attack at the Bloomingdale Library in 2008. She cannot walk, talk, see or eat on her own, but she is making improvements. She communicates through widening her eyes, smiling and clenching her fists.

"She is more active," Camargo says. "It's hard, but it is good for her to be here."

The therapy has been helpful for Camargo as well. And running the center has been therapeutic.

"I feel stronger and healthier," he says. "I haven't been back to the hospital for any reason. I don't have any mobility, but just being around the center and seeing clients work out and the staff work with clients for me is healing. It is gratifying."

The center recently got some good news from the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa. It can now accept clients paid for through the Department of Veterans Affairs CHOICE program, which allows veterans to use private health providers in certain cases.

"Stay in Step joins a team of community-based, non-VA medical professionals who meet VA quality standards to help provide the best health care possible for our veteran and active duty patients by expanding the network of providers and improving access to health care within the Tampa Bay community," says Karen Collins, a Haley spokeswoman.

The center currently has a mix of 60 percent civilian patients and 40 percent veterans. Camargo expects that to eventually even out. And he hopes one day, the center will be able to accept the military's TRICARE insurance, allowing active duty service members to seek treatment there.

To purchase new equipment and help pay for care for those who cannot afford it, the center is holding its first gala Saturday at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina, with cocktails starting at 6 p.m., followed by dinner and dancing. Tickets are $150. For more information, go to stayinstep.org, or call 813-977-7999.

• • •

The Pentagon announced the death of a sailor Sept. 22 in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the U.S. military's support of the Libyan government against the so-called Islamic State.

Aviation Boatswain's Mate Airman Devon M. Faulkner, 24, of North Carolina, died Sept. 20 of a non-combat-related injury while underway. The incident is under investigation. He was assigned to USS Wasp in the central Mediterranean Sea.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 24 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 24 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State, and one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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