Three years have passed since Tara Blackwell had her life altered in a split-second of tragedy.
She has clung to hope. She has been fueled by hope. Now, for the first time since her paralyzing injury, Blackwell is ready to turn hope into a dramatic progression.
Blackwell, 23, a Pine Forest High graduate and former standout softball player at Troy University, is preparing to travel to Germany on Aug. 9 for the first phase of a stem-cell procedure that could enable her to regain movement.
“I have to take this step,” said Blackwell, after another day of therapy at her Pensacola home. “I had to make a move or I will go crazy.
“After all this time of working hard, and pushing myself, and trying to get a procedure done, then being disappointed, this is actually going to happen. I’m going. I’m having it done.
“Regardless of the results, I know in my heart that I’ve taken the first step. I’ll know in my heart I’ve done all I can.”
To help finance the enomorous costs, Blackwell’s family, friends and total strangers have pitched in. The fourth “Tarafest” will be Saturday at the MySpayce Event Center on Garden Street.
The event, open to the public, begins at 2 p.m., and will include food, beverages, live music from various bands, a raffle and silent auction.
One of the guests will be Sam Slusak, 19, a former high school gymnast in New Port Richey, who suffered a similar spinal cord injury three years ago. Like Blackwell, she has been confined to a wheelchair and unable to move.
The two met recently at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, one of the nation’s top research and rehab facilities for spinal cord injuries.
“We’re thrilled Sam is going to be with us,” said Patsy Blackwell, Tara’s mother. “She helped us learn about the (XCell) center in Germany. This has meant so much to Tara. She needed this. She needed something to let her know all this hard work can lead to a positive result.”
Slusak, whose injuries left her in worse shape than Blackwell, went to the XCell-Center in Cologne, Germany for the first phase of the stem cell procedure. Her surgery went well.
It enabled her to breathe without a ventilator and regain movement in her shoulders and back.
The hope is Blackwell, who can breathe on her own and has been able to work out, will advance even further from the procedure. Stem cells harvested from bone marrow in her hip will be injected into her spinal cord.
“There’s no risk involved at all,” Blackwell said. “If all goes well, best case, I will be able to move my hands again, or possibly accelerate arm control. And then I will be able to continue going back and having more stem cell procedures.
“My biggest dream is that I will be able to get out of this (wheel)chair. I want to get out of this chair. That is my determination.”
Since her accident, April 9, 2005, while performing a back flip during a practice between Troy softball games at Belmont University, Blackwell has relied on resolve and her athletic grit to push through depressing times.
“All of the traits you gain from being an athlete have probably kept me going,” Blackwell said. “I have just transferred them. It’s just a different ballgame now.
“But I feel like I have not given up. I truly believe anything is posible if you work for it.”
Blackwell works hard, going through exhaustive therapy to stay in shape and keep the muscles she can feel from inactivity. But she can not grasp anything with her hands and requires help to perform daily needs.
The trip to Germany will not be covered by her medical insurance since the procedure is not available in the U.S. It has increased the need for private donors to help.
Blackwell is grateful for her close friend, Rachel Byers, along with two cousins, Brandi Parkerson and Cindie Corey, plus other family and friends who organize events like Tarafest.
She is also grateful for the way Pensacola residents have supported her. She thanks Legacy Event Design and Bikes Plus, who helped sponsor Tarafest.
“I am truly blessed,” Blackwell said. “Believe me, I realize how fortunate I am to be able to get therapy, to be able to go to Baltimore, to be able to go to Germany and have this procedure done. I realize so many others in my condition are not able to do this.”
Bill Vilona – pnj.com