written by Bettinita Harris
Pedro Toala maneuvers his wheelchair into the personal training studio at the Hockessin Athletic Club.
“Hello, Pedro,” says personal trainer Kristi Leigh-Morgan as she scurries around the studio gathering four Plyo Safe boxes that when put together act as a makeshift therapy table. “How are you feeling today?”
Pedro flashes his signature smile. He has already been in the swimming pool for an hour.
“I’m good,” he says, unfolding his walker so he can walk to the boxes and sit down. “My legs are feeling a little heavy today.”
And yet there is work to be done. Kristi doesn’t have to say it. Pedro, 51, already knows it.
It’s been eight years since the accident. It’s been eight years since Pedro has walked on his own. It’s been eight years of Pedro pushing his body every day to do what it used to do instinctively.
“It hasn’t been easy but it’s made me stronger,” he says. “Mentally, I am stronger than I used to be. Physically, I guess I am stronger, too. I think I feel much better inside than before the accident happened to me.”
All the while, Pedro has seen blessings. The love and support of his family. The many people who donated money to offset medical bills. The group of Wilmington businesses that joined forces to remodel Pedro’s home to make it accessible. And the generosity of HAC, which has given him and his family a free lifetime membership and provides free physical therapy and personal training sessions.
“The relationship started at the old Pike Creek Fitness Club,” says HAC general manager John Peoples, referring to HAC’s predecessor holding a fund-raising event and offering Pedro a free membership.
Still, Pedro admits the most difficult part is getting up each morning.
“I pray to the Lord that He will give me strength to get up. Basically, I do that every morning,” he says. “Otherwise, I would not be able to get up.”
“I will walk again.”
June 23, 2006, was a normal Friday. Pedro, who was a bus driver for Delaware Area Rapid Transit (DART), had just gotten paid.
“My daughter from Massachusetts was coming to visit me that day,” he recalls. “So I got out of work that day and I was so happy to meet them. I was going to pick her up at my friend’s house.”
Shortly before 7:00 pm, he parked his bus at DART’s storage yard, off Wilmington’s Adams Street. He walked across the street to use a portable toilet in the 200 block of N. Adams Street, near Interstate 95.
Pedro heard laughter.
The next thing he knew he was lying face down in a pool of human waste, mixed with blue deodorizer and disinfectant chemicals.
“Some kids came over and turned over the portable potty with me inside of it,” he says.
As he struggled to keep his mouth above the waste, Pedro could still hear the laughter.
He was taken to Christiana Hospital, where an MRI indicated his spine was broken near the base of his neck. He underwent seven hours of surgery and remained in the hospital for two weeks before being transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia. He spent two months there.
“They taught me how to start over and how to use everything,” says Pedro, who is a paraplegic. “It was really tough there.”
Pedro says he never considered giving up “because there is something that God wants me to achieve in life. There is this obstacle that He put in front of me for a reason. I really have faith that I will walk again.”
“We all have disabilities.”
Before each personal training session begins, Pedro and Kristi join hands and dedicate the session to God. They thank Him for the opportunity to train and they ask for a speedy recovery.
Then for the next hour, Kristi guides Pedro through a dozen exercises designed to strengthen his body and improve flexibility.
In one exercise, Pedro rolls from his back to his belly to his back again. Ten times. In another exercise, called sit to stand, Pedro sits on a Plyo Safe box and then, using his upper-body strength, braces himself against a treatment table so he can stand. He stands for 30 seconds, then slowly sits down. Ten times.
“My goal is general strengthening of his core and legs,” Kristi says. “We also focus on movements of human development, such as walking, crawling, cruising along a piece of furniture, pulling up to a stand.”
By this point in the session, perspiration drips from Pedro’s forehead. Kristi hands him a paper towel as she scurries again to arrange the boxes for the box crawl exercise. Pedro gets on his hands and knees and begins a grueling crawl across the room, from box to box to box.
Left hand. Right hand. Pause. Left leg. Right leg. Pause. Next box. “Come on Pedro, you can do it,” Kristi says. Left hand. Right hand. Pause. Left leg. Right leg. Pause. Pause.
Next box. Pause. “You got it,” she tells Pedro. “You got it. Don’t give up.”
In the two years she has trained him, Kristi says Pedro has learned to rely less on his upper-body strength when using the walker and therefore is able to walk greater distances.
The experience also has been revealing for the trainer.
“I’ve learned how strong some people can be despite whatever life has thrown their way,” she says. “Life will kick people down, but some just get right back up. Some face challenges in this world with a smile, never giving up, always pushing through and being thankful for the blessings they have. Pedro is one of these amazing and inspiring souls.”
Pedro’s weekly rehabilitation schedule is draining. On Mondays, he has an hour-long physical therapy session at Elite Physical Therapy at HAC. He trains with Kristi on Tuesdays. On Thursdays, he goes to the Elite Physical Therapy on Foulk Road in Wilmington, where he walks for about an hour on the AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill. Before he trains with Kristi again on Fridays, he spends an hour with personal trainer Keith Glines.
Keith manually activates Pedro’s muscles and uses isometric contractions to try to get his muscles and his nervous system engaged for his exercise program.
“This guy has a lot stacked against him, but he perseveres,” Keith says. “It’s an effort to get to the gym and work out. He’s made that decision. He could sit around and feel sorry for himself, but he chooses not to.”
In the year he has worked with Pedro, Keith says he, too, has been affected.
“I’ve learned that the human spirit isn’t nearly as fragile as the human body, and that faith in God is what gives the spirit strength,” Keith says. “I’ve learned to be compassionate, but not to feel pity for people with disabilities. I’ve learned that we all have disabilities; some of them are just more obvious than others.”
“I had already forgiven them.”
Pedro still works at DART, logging more than 20 years with the agency. But he’s no longer a bus driver; he now works in customer service. That also has been a significant adjustment.
“I used to make three times more than what I make working in customer service,” he says. “It’s a little stressful for me, but I try not to let that get me down.”
Pedro’s ability to avoid dwelling on his situation is challenged regularly. To get to his job, he has to pass by the site of his injury.
“I hear a lot of people get flashbacks about something like this or they don’t want to get close to the place where it happened,” he says. “What happened is the past. Leave it behind, just keep walking.”
About five years ago, one of the youths involved in the incident turned himself in to authorities, Pedro said. At the time of his arrest, the youth was 14, which means he was 10 or 11 years old when Pedro was injured. He was sentenced to six months in a juvenile detention center, Pedro says.
“The officers in charge asked me if I wanted to go to court to see what arrangements were being made,” Pedro says. “I said no. I had already forgiven them for what they had done.”
Pedro says he became a Christian a year before the incident and that he relates his life to Job’s.
According to the Biblical story, Job was a man of faith who lost his livestock, servants, 10 children and his health. Initially, his desire to understand his suffering became overwhelming and led him to question God.
Job ultimately acknowledged God’s omnipotence and realized it is better to know God than to know answers. In the end, God restores Job, giving him more children and twice as much wealth as he had previously.
“God gave him everything back,” Pedro says. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”