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Use your mind, keep body safe

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Paralyzed former race car driver takes advice about spinal cord injuries to students in South Florida high schools.

The high-tech, mechanized wheelchair caught their attention. Students at McArthur High School in Hollywood sat spellbound as former race car driver Darrell Gwynn, 45, of Weston, spoke to them about using their minds to make good choices to keep their bodies safe.

The discussion was part of the first Florida Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Week, aimed at paralysis prevention and promoting safety knowledge and understanding to reduce injuries and accidents.

The Darrell Gwynn Foundation organized events at two schools in Miami-Dade and four in Broward — besides McArthur, they were Western High and Nova Community School in Davie and J.P. Taravella High in Coral Springs.

Gwynn suffered a devastating spinal cord injury in 1990 in England while doing a quarter-mile speed exhibition. During the exhibition, while Gwynn was traveling more than 200 mph, his car broke apart. He lost motion and feeling in his legs and lost part of one arm.

“I made a bad decision before that race,” he said. “I had lent my arm restraints to another driver. If I’d been wearing them, I’d probably still be paralyzed in my legs but I would have my arm.”

In a news release before the event, Gwynn said danger lurks in more common, everyday pursuits as well.

“The Florida lifestyle is very active, with swimming a yearlong pursuit, plus scores of outdoor activities, participation sports, as well as boating and driving, can lead to dangerous accidents that can often be avoided with a little bit of knowledge,” he wrote. “For example, did you know that you should not allow your child to wear a backpack while belted into a car because even the slightest car accident could cause a neck injury?”

He explained during the lecture that by wearing a backpack, too much area is left between a child’s head and neck and the back of the seat, possibly making the seatbelt ineffective in an accident.

“If you’re not careful, your next vehicle could be a wheelchair,” he said, noting that 33 percent of high school seniors say they have gotten into a car with someone who has been drinking alcohol.

Mendez Wooding, 15, of Hollywood, said Gwynn was a powerful speaker.

“I learned to be safe,” he said. “It’s great that he came. It shows he really cares for us.”

“It’s amazing,” said Seraiah Joseph, 16, of Hollywood. “None of us knew anyone with a spinal cord injury before now. He really made you think because he said when he was in high school, he did lots of dumb things that could’ve left him paralyzed before he ever had his racing accident.”

Jean Dougherty, health science teacher at McArthur, helped organize the event.

“In my medical career, I’ve seen young, healthy kids who, in the blink of an eye, are in the hospital, helpless, unable to move because of an accident that could’ve perhaps easily have been prevented,” she said. “It’s great to get to the kids before something tragic happens, to get them to think twice in a situation and to let them know that, by making good choices, they are the most active participant in their continued safety.”

The Darrell Gwynn Foundation partnered with The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to create spinal cord injury prevention tips and information brochures. The brochures were distributed at the schools Gwynn visited.

For more information, visit

By Marcia Freidenreich
Special correspondent

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