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Wharton coach's determination leading to recovery

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:27 PM
TAMPA -

Laying on the ground, flat on his back, Wes Newton had just fallen nearly 12 feet while cutting oak tree branches on his sprawling 15-acre property in Brooksville. The limb that had suddenly swung down and knocked the ladder from under him was now brushing his chest, still attached to the tree because it hadn't been cut clean through.

Meanwhile, the heavy duty chainsaw continued running, the blade just inches from his head.

It was a sweltering July afternoon this summer. Newton, a science teacher and track and cross country coach at Wharton High since the school opened its doors in 1997, knew he had injured himself badly. Worse, he was home alone. He tried reaching for the cell phone in his pocket, but his arms wouldn't do what his brain told them to do. Instead, his body thrashed uncontrollably.

Newton, 63, didn't know it yet, but he had cracked the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae in his neck. As a result, the vertebrae were pressing against his spinal cord, causing him to lose control of his arms and legs. He had also broken five ribs.

About 30 minutes after the fall, Newton's wife and fellow track coach, Laura, returned from visiting their grandchildren and began searching their property for him.

To her horror, Laura -- "Coach Mom'' as the kids at Wharton often say -- found her husband "flopping like a fish'' on the ground. Newton was able to speak and was still clutching the humming chainsaw in one hand. But he was in serious pain and, from what Laura Newton could ascertain, had suffered a spinal injury.

''At first, I didn't know what to do and here's this chainsaw still running in his hand, right next to his head,'' Laura Newton said. ''He was thumping his legs all over the place and swinging his arms and I said 'Can you just lay still?' and he said 'I can't move!' and I say 'But you are moving! Let go of the saw!' I think that's when I realized how serious it (the injury) was.''

After calling paramedics, Newton was transported by ambulance from Brooksville to Tampa General Hospital's trauma center. Doctors told Newton he was likely suffering from central cord syndrome (CCS), an acute spinal cord injury that typically impairs motor function in the upper body, particularly the hands. CCS can result in problems with bladder functions and varying levels of sensory loss below the area that was injured.

Laura Newton said she immediately began researching CCS, and most of what she learned was not encouraging.

''Nearly everything I was reading said you could walk again and regain some use of your hands, but not complete use of your hands,'' Laura Newton said. ''And then you start thinking 'How do you care for someone who can't fully use their hands? What are we going to do?' ''

A week after the accident, Newton, underwent a complex 5 1/2-hour surgery by a team of doctors at TGH led by neurosurgeon Mark Greenberg of the University of South Florida's Department of Neurosurgery and Brain Repair. The doctors removed one vertebra and the discs above and below it. They replaced the damaged vertebra with a cage-like device and ground up bone from the broken one to help prevent the body from rejecting the implant.

After two days in the intensive care unit, Newton was cleared to move to a standard hospital room at TGH. On July 14, he was accepted to enter TGH's Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Program, where patients undergo a rigorous, daily three-hour-a-day rehabilitation regimen. Even before Newton was admitted to the rehab program, Laura had her husband doing small exercises with his arms and legs. The coach in her was taking over. And Newton said as much as it sometimes hurt, he was glad she was there.

''I kept looking around at the people in the hospital who had no one there and no one to go home to afterward,'' Newton said. ''It makes you appreciate your loved ones, that's for sure. I'm pretty darn lucky to have someone like Laura.''

But Newton admits there were days immediately following his surgery he had doubts about his recovery. Sometimes, he felt downright depressed. When he saw his three grandchildren, Luca, Oliver and Paisley, either in person or via the Internet, he would sometimes break down and cry. Even missing his pet dachshund, Bailey, would bring him to tears.

But those moments of sadness, Newton said, made him realize he had plenty of reasons to get back on his feet and start recovering.

''I decided I'm not going to be an invalid and I'm going to do something about it,'' Newton said. ''I have to do better.''

Like Laura, the coach in him was kicking in. And as a lifelong runner, Newton also had an athlete in him motivated to return to training. So when he began the rehab program at TGH, he attacked the physical and occupational therapy with a positive attitude.

When he first arrived, he could barely stand up from his wheelchair. But within a few days, his primary physical therapist, Christina Potter, had him walking 300 feet, then 500 feet and then nearly a quarter of a mile. Another physical therapist, Maggie Dewberry, has been helping Newton with strength and balance. By the end of the two weeks of physical therapy, Newton's ''final exam'' included walking up and down stairs, along each floor of the hospital, through the hospital parking lot and, to test his balance on an undulating surface, through the grass.

Before it was over, Newton was doing so well, he found himself "coaching'' some of the patients in the rehab program who weren't doing as well as him.

All the while, Newton was also undergoing occupational therapy, where his primary therapist, Jessica Cohen, helped him re-learn to do things everyone needs to do in order to take care of themself. His last exam there included getting dressed, making breakfast, taking a shower, shaving and brushing his teeth.

''It was hard, but everything I did, I made up my mind I wasn't going to quit until I could do it,'' Newton said. ''At first, it took me 25 minutes to put my socks on. I couldn't squeeze a clothespin to put it on a quarter-inch bar.''

Newton isn't completely recovered. He's been going to TGH several times a week for out-patient therapy and still wears an Aspen Collar to limit mobility of his head and neck. Some things are still difficult, particularly fine movements of his hands, his overall strength and stamina. As a result, he reluctantly decided to take off this school year's opening semester from teaching and coaching. When Wharton competed in Saturday's season-opening cross country meet at Newsome, it was the first competition he had missed in decades.

Newton has several goals for 2013: finish construction of the cedar log cabin on his property, returning to teaching and coaching and, as a runner, compete in the 5-kilometer race of the Gasparilla Distance Classic in late February.

''I miss everything -- the coaching, the teaching, running and all the stuff we still need to do to move into our new house,'' Newton said. ''But I also know how lucky I am on a lot of levels. And I know I'm going to get back to all of that eventually. I just have to be patient and thankful.''


wward@tampatrib.com

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