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The fire within

After a paralyzing training injury, firefighter Bob Edwards couldn't even wiggle his toes. But his will to walk again was enormous.

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003


photo
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Physical therapist Allie Marandino helps Pasco County firefighter Bob Edwards work on balance at Ewing & Thomas rehabilitation center in New Port Richey.
The man who never cried lay alone in the dark.

Crying.

His beautiful dream was slipping away.

No one knew whether he could stop it. Not his wife, not the nurses, not the therapists, not even the surgeons.

Panicked, he looked down at his legs.

Move, he thought, and pushed hard.

But they were still.

A wheelchair sat nearby, mocking him.

People said he should get used to that chair.

But he didn't want to.

* * *

Bob Edwards is a strong man, a Pasco County firefighter, accustomed to helping people rather than being helped.

One morning Edwards found himself in the back of the ambulance he usually drives. He was hurting.

His fall had been quick and inelegant.

Last September, a lieutenant at Station 10 in Hudson took the firefighters outside for a training exercise. The men are as competitive as they are close; Edwards, 39, wanted to beat his teammates in a timed drill.

He was supposed to carry a 100-foot hose across the yard and yell for water. But he tripped and fell. The other firefighters laughed.

"Nobody thought it was a big deal," said Lt. Gary Policastri. "It didn't look like anything."

Edwards finished the drill. Then he collapsed.

Blood gushed from his right arm, but Edwards grinned. "I feel like a fool," he said.

The firefighters took him to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. Nurses bandaged his cut and sent him back to work.

Six days later, he could barely move.

"Hell was in my back," he said.

At work that Saturday afternoon, his legs burned. His partner, Brian Ploehn, could tell something was wrong.

"He looked pale and weak," Ploehn said. "He needed to go to the hospital."

* * *

Doctors told Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, that his injuries did not appear serious. Relieved, she went home and spent the night with their 2-year-old daughter, Ashley.

She woke at 5 a.m. when Douglas Hershkowitz, a neurosurgeon, called. He said Edwards' condition had worsened. He needed immediate surgery.

Without it, Edwards would never walk again, Hershkowitz said. With it, Edwards had a 5 percent chance.

"I almost passed out," Elizabeth recalled. "I made him stop talking so I could calm down and catch my breath."

A herniated disk had pressed against Edwards' spinal cord, causing him to lose feeling in his legs. In surgery, Hershkowitz removed part of the disk, but he predicted permanent damage. It was too soon to tell, Hershkowitz said, but he thought Edwards had gone downhill too fast to fully recover.

Edwards might not go to the bathroom on his own again, the doctor said. He probably wouldn't walk. And his career as a firefighter was over.

Elizabeth wept in the waiting room.

But she didn't believe the doctor.

"You don't understand," she told him. "My husband, he's just not going to take that."

* * *

Edwards' life had been filled with things he didn't want to happen. He didn't want his parents to abandon him at 4, but they did. He didn't want his great-grandmother, who raised him, to die when he was 17, but she did.

He saw his life as a series of compromises, decisions made out of need rather than want.

That changed about 10 years ago, when Edwards met Elizabeth, his second wife. She managed a Walgreens; he managed a paint store.

On the side, Edwards volunteered as a Pasco County firefighter, a career he had been interested in since the Navy.

"In the Navy, everybody's a firefighter," Edwards said. "If the ship catches fire, everyone helps. It's something that has to be done or there are catastrophic consequences. I liked the pressure. I caught the bug and couldn't get rid of it."

When he got home at night, Edwards never talked about the paint shop. He told Elizabeth about the fire station. He loved it there.

Elizabeth encouraged him to quit his job and enroll in school. He did.

He felt self-conscious at the fire academy, filled with buff young women and men. At 34, Edwards was the oldest in his class.

He passed the course and soon started working full time for Pasco County Fire Rescue.

"He took a pay cut to be here," Ploehn said. "He fights fires. That's what he is. He's a fireman."

The news about Edwards' legs traveled quickly among firefighters. They couldn't believe it.

"We see people survive catastrophic incidents all the time," said Lt. Policastri. "We see people fall out of cars and tumble off buildings and walk away. That's why this was so strange and so devastating. Bob just fell on the ground."

* * *

After surgery, Edwards was quiet and withdrawn.

Firefighters visited by the dozens. Edwards' partner, Ploehn, left his fire helmet in the hospital room. He wanted Edwards to see it every morning when he woke.

Edwards appreciated the support, but he felt strange.

"People kept coming in, and I could see how freaked out they were," he said. "It made me feel worse."

He couldn't stop thinking about his legs. He couldn't make his toes wiggle.

Whenever Elizabeth visited, she touched his leg, hoping he would feel. He didn't.

But after lunch one afternoon, Elizabeth put her hand on his leg and felt a muscle twitch.

"Did you feel that?" she asked.

"Yes," he said.

It was a small sign that buoyed their hope. Edwards started to improve.

Therapists taught him how to sit up in bed, get dressed and stand with a walker. Within days, he made the toes on his left foot wiggle. After a week, he had regained some feeling in his left leg. But he felt nothing in the right.

Sometimes he stared at the wheelchair. Everyone kept hinting that he should get used to it.

"I thought, the hell with that," he said. "I never had much of anything when I was a child. As an adult, I get what I want. I wanted to walk."

After a week, doctors sent Edwards to Tampa General Hospital for rehabilitation.

He liked the program. It was demanding and structured. He enjoyed looking at the board on the wall that detailed his daily appointments with therapists.

"We had a game plan," Edwards said.

He still felt strange around visitors. He wouldn't let his children from a previous marriage, Joshua, Justin and Katlyn, see him in the hospital.

One night, he noticed that his legs looked shrunken and angled inward. Edwards pictured himself in a wheelchair, a strong upper body, tiny legs. He couldn't stop crying.

* * *

By the time Edwards left Tampa in October, he still needed the wheelchair.

When he got home, the firefighters at Station 10 asked Edwards to breakfast. Ploehn pulled into the parking lot with Edwards and helped him into the wheelchair.

"It was uncomfortable," Lt. Policastri said. "It took me a few minutes to look him in the eye. I knew he would see right through me."

The firefighters tried to ignore the chair. Edwards wouldn't let them.

He kept talking about the progress he had made. He told them about learning to dress himself and shave. He described climbing into a model car in therapy to practice driving.

The lieutenant didn't understand why Edwards was so excited.

"I kept thinking, this is progress?" Policastri said. "It sounded like they were teaching him how to be handicapped."

But Edwards insisted that he would return to work. He asked Policastri whether he would still be first in line for a promotion once he recovered.

"I didn't know what to say," Policastri said. "I just told him to take one step at a time. We didn't know what was going to happen."

* * *

In October, Edwards started therapy at Ewing & Thomas in New Port Richey. He discussed his injuries and treatment with owner Dee Thomas.

Edwards looked her in the eye.

"I'm going to walk again," he said.

Thomas admired his confidence. But she didn't believe him.

"I'm very realistic about spinal cord injuries," said Thomas, a physical therapist for 35 years. "He had great surgery, great determination and a lot of support. But the odds were not in his favor."

Three days a week, Edwards went to therapy. But his right leg still wouldn't move. He sometimes got depressed.

Still, Thomas said, "He never stays down very long. He just picks himself up and off we go again."

One afternoon, while he was sitting on his couch at home, he looked down. His right toes were wiggling. He stared. He kept wiggling.

He went to therapy the next day.

He didn't say a word. He just lay down and wiggled his toes.

"Bob's wiggling his toes," someone shouted.

Everyone crowded around to watch.

"He might just do it," Thomas thought then. "He might just walk."

The wiggling was significant, the first time Edwards had been able to move a part of his right leg without help. He kept working on his toes. Then he focused on his ankle. Then his calf.

* * *

For weeks, the firefighters had been asking Edwards to join them for dinner at Station 10. Every time, he politely declined.

But in January, his red pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. The firefighters watched as the car door opened. They saw Edwards get out. No wheelchair. No walker. No cane.

Just Edwards, walking toward them.

"There was nothing humble about that walk," Lt. Policastri said. "He was almost strutting. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it."

Edwards grinned.

"Wait until you see me next week," he said.

* * *

Edwards continues working with his therapists. He is scheduled to return to work, on light duty, on Monday.

He has inspired everyone at the physical therapy office, including Thomas.

"In the medical profession, we lump people into categories," she said. "We know the literature. We know the statistics. Someone like Bob makes you sit back on your heels and think, it doesn't have to be that way."

Before he can return to full duty, Edwards must pass an agility test. He will have to complete an obstacle course, crawl and run, climb a ladder and carry a heavy water hose.

He has a long way to go. He still doesn't have full movement in his right leg. One doctor recently told Edwards that he will never again work as a firefighter.

Of course, that means nothing to Edwards.

"I would be lying in bed right now if I had fallen into their doomsday plan for me," he said.

Edwards is still pestering his lieutenant about a promotion. And he has vowed to return as a firefighter at Station 10 by July.

"I had doubts before," said Lt. Policastri. "I don't anymore. I believe him."

-- Jamie Jones can be reached at (727) 869-6245 in west Pasco or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245. Her e-mail address is jjones@sptimes.com.

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