Friday, May 11, 2007

A new mission in life

Published May 9, 2007

LARGO - They said he would never walk again, but Gerald Lee Gregory Jr. proved them wrong when he walked across the stage Monday on a prosthetic leg to pick up his diploma.

Gregory, 45, was among 21 students who were the first to graduate with a bachelor's degree from St. Petersburg College's Orthotics and Prosthetics program.

It wasn't a path he planned. Ten years ago he was an auto worker, a blissfully married man. But a motorcycle accident on a New Hampshire road changed all that. It killed his wife and took most of his left leg.

The path eventually led him to Largo two years ago to start a new life helping others who find themselves suddenly stuck with an artificial limb. He figures his natural empathy will help. But so, most likely, will the life he's rebuilt: One that includes all-terrain vehicles, sailing and even motorcycle riding.

"As a human being, you have no limit on what you can do, " he said recently.

"It's here, " he said, tapping the side of his head.

* * *

His childhood in Illinois was the rural ideal. Granddad owned a boat landing and campground business where Gregory learned to love the water. Later he learned clarinet, basketball and baseball. By 16, he had his first motorcycle, a Honda that he rode to high school. And before long, he was working to pay for a '67 Camaro.

Gregory had reached 6 feet 6 inches when he graduated from high school in 1980, and he weighed about 250 pounds. A big man, he learned to speak softly and start the conversation.

"Most people look at me and think, 'Look at the size of this guy; I'm not going to talk to him, ' " he said.

A first marriage came and went in three years. Then in the winter of 1989, he met Mari, the love of his life, in a bar - "the place my mother told me I would never meet anyone nice, " he recalls.

He was 27 and she was 23, 5 feet 4, with a cherub's face and long blond hair. It took him three weeks to get a date.

He bought a little house in Decatur, Ill., and they were married in 1991. He worked second shift at an auto factory, troubleshooting cars that made it through the assembly line with problems. She worked as a licensed practical nurse. She loved gardening and their weekend trips on his Harley-Davidson.

"We just always tried to make our time together count, " he said. "And I guess it's a good thing we did, because we didn't get to stay together as long as I had hoped."

* * *

On June 11, 1997, the couple were in New Hampshire on vacation, riding the Harley.

"The last thing I remember asking her was where she wanted to eat dinner, " Gregory said.

Another motorcycle crossed into their lane, hitting them on their left side, he said. The impact crushed her chest on a guardrail, shoved his left hand into his arm and broke his left leg in 14 places.

The other motorcyclist was in a coma for weeks.

Mari died almost immediately. Gregory spent six weeks in the hospital. They saved his hand, but his left leg was amputated above the knee.

* * *

Nothing prepared him for what was ahead.

Considering his stature, doctors at first told him that no prosthetic could hold him, that he would need to use a wheelchair the rest of his life.

But they underestimated him. He insisted on being fitted for a new leg. And then he began the agonizing process of learning to use it.

"A prosthetic device fits you intimately, so it presses against parts of your body where you aren't used to it, " he said.

One medical staffer told him to "walk lightly" on his new limb. How was he supposed to do that?

It could have been so much better, he said. The help he needed, including physical therapy and a prosthetic, could have been coordinated at one facility. And he was left to find psychological help on his own.

The experience led to his current mission: to go into the business of prosthetics and orthotics, so he can help others with more sensitivity.

His schooling included hands-on work at several real-world sites, including Hanger Orthotics and Prosthetics in Clearwater. He's now seeking a residency to qualify for a license.

Taking a break after exams last week, he headed to the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, where he took a "Sailability" class last summer.

He had strapped on his "sea" leg, an older leg that he doesn't mind dunking in the seawater. He headed for a Hobe Wave catamaran. The air was hot and muggy. Other sailors stopped to chat. "That 72-degree water is going to feel good, " he said, when it splashed up on the boat.

Then he hauled the boat out, step by step, into the water and turned the red sail toward a small island offshore.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at or 727 445-4170.

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