On the night of July 7, 2011, Willie Smith was caught in a drive-by shooting in Brownsville, a victim of mistaken identity.
“They were looking for someone else that wasn’t me,” said Smith, 48, who had seven bullets rip through his body, leaving him at T10 paraplegic. T10 is the 10th thoracic vertebra in the middle of the back. Typically, a person has normal function above the injured vertebra but not below.
Even so, that did not stop Smith from cycling recently through Shark Valley in Everglades National Park on a tricycle propelled by his arms. He and two other patients with spinal-cord injuries from Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital embarked on the 15-mile tour using hand-cranked cycles.
“I didn’t know I had it in me,” said Smith, his face glistening with sweat after he returned from his three-hour trip. “All my life I never thought I’d bike that long — even with my legs.”
Like many others with spinal-cord injuries, Smith had a long road to recovery. He spent two months at Jackson Memorial Hospital before starting his physical rehabilitation program at Jackson’s rehab hospital.
Smith, who uses a red wheelchair, is not shy about his scars. On the morning of the Shark Valley ride, he rolled up his T-shirt and showed a vertical scar on his stomach, where surgeons cut him open to extract the bullets from his spine. Almost two years later, one of the bullets remains lodged in his back.
“I’ve seen people in wheelchairs, but I never thought I would be in one,” said Smith, who was a construction worker for 16 years before the shooting. “I really didn’t care about a lot of things because of what I was going through.”
When he first entered rehab, he could not transfer himself from his wheelchair to his bed or into his car. Slowly, he has built up the upper body strength needed, as he says, “to carry the bottom.”
Now, he can easily transfer out of his wheelchair and barbecues for his wife and two children.
He lifts weights at the rehabilitation center and at home, goes to Gerry Curtis Park in Allapattah where he hand cycles around the track and also does what he calls “slight push ups” by lying on his stomach.
Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital and the City of Miami Parks and Recreation Department have been conducting the annual Shark Valley hand-cycles ride for about six years. This was Smith’s first time.
“We don’t want them to think the hospital is going to be their home forever,” said Cathy Herring, a recreation therapist at Jackson and one of the ride’s organizers. “The mission is to show them, ‘Look, you can be outside the home and outside the hospital.’ They are doing things they used to do.”
As part of the rehabilitation program, patients visit Crandon Park in Key Biscayne, where they learn how to barbecue and go into the ocean with special wheelchairs; go to Islamorada, where they swim with dolphins; and head over to Curtis Park for hand-cranked cycling.
Smith said his therapists inspire him to work harder.
“I love them. I call them my queens,” said Smith, referring to Herring, his recreation therapist, and to Rita Smith, his physical therapist. “They get you your hope and faith back.”
Hope and faith are exactly what 27-year-old Virgil French got while riding a hand cycle for the first time during the Shark Valley tour. On Nov. 10, 2011, he was shot 11 times in his left arm, back and stomach while at a party in Liberty City.
“I am hurting but I am feeling good,” said French, who flashed a peace sign.
The shooting left him an L2 paraplegic. The L2 vertebra is the second uppermost lumbar vertebra in the lower back. While he has full movement of his upper body, moving his knees and hips comes with a lot of pain. Last Thursday was the first time French sat in a hand cycle. As he transferred out of his wheelchair and into the tricycle, he grimaced.
“I haven’t been bending my knees this far back,” said French, of North Miami.
Depending on the injury, patients will regain different levels of mobility. While some will be able to take short walks in their home using a walker, others might be able to switch from the wheelchair into the car by standing up on their feet.
“It’s different for everybody,” said Herring.
Added Smith: “I pray for the best and pray for other people, too.”