It’s been a roller coaster of emotions for Rusty Begnaud since the swimming pool accident last June that left him a paralyzed. Returning home has been one of the high points, and a landmark step on the way to his goal of regaining some independence.
“One day you feel great, and everything’s good, the next day you backtrack,” said Begnaud, who returned home to New Iberia with his father Calvin just over a week ago. The two had been in Atlanta completing one phase of Rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center, a non-profit facility specializing in the care of spinal cord and head trauma patients. “It takes a toll on you mentally. I was struggling to get through that.”
Begnaud, who had been pitching for the Pensacola (Fla.) Pelicans, an independent minor league baseball team, was hurt when he jumped into a teammate’s pool following an early game on June 20. He spent time at Pensacola’s Baptist Hospital before being transferred to the Shepherd Center, widely considered on of the nation’s top spinal cord injury facilities.
After an in-facility rehabilitation course that covered roughly eight weeks, he was moved to a nearby facility owned by the center to do some outpatient therapy. The additional occupational, recreational and Physical Therapy work took another six weeks, and he will continue therapy at Our Lady of Lourdes in Lafayette before returning to the Shepherd Center after about six months for another round of work there.
“I’m not done by any means,” he said. “They say it takes a full year.”
Meanwhile, he is back among those closest to him, after some remodeling at his parents’ home. Mom Patricia stayed in New Iberia for much of the past few months, seeing to work, paying bills and overseeing renovation of the bathroom to include a roll-in shower, along with widening of doorways, installing a new entrance to the house that will accommodate wheelchairs, and changing the flooring in his bedroom from carpet to a ceramic tile that looks like wood. The family hopes to add a new wing to the back of the house with a new bedroom and bath for Rusty.
“My family was absolutely outstanding,” said Rusty. “And the support I got from friends and fans I don’t even know … The visitors in and out of Pensacola and in Atlanta made it a little easier to swallow everything that was going on.
“When you see people that care about you and your family, coming in huge waves, it’s comforting to know you’re not alone.”
His brothers Clay and Paul and sister Coty each helped in their own way, Rusty said.
“I’m sure it was hard for them initially, but they’ve been great,” he said. “They all stepped up to help when they could. They helped my parents take care of issues here while we were in Atlanta.”
Paul, for instance, took on a big load by staying in their parents’ house by himself for a long time, taking care of the bills and everyday maintenance. Clay and Coty did a lot of work on fundraising and with the upcoming meet-and-greet event scheduled Sunday at the Gouguenheim and Bouligny Plaza.
Coty also set up Rusty’s page on the CarePages website (www. carepages.com) and researched the Shepherd Center when the family first was told of the facility while Rusty was in the hospital in Pensacola. Rusty, Calvin and Patricia Begnaud regularly update the site, which helps keep friends informed of his progress. Hundreds of messages have been left on his page by friends, family members, fans and even total strangers who have heard of his case.
“They’ve all pitched in and done their part,” said Rusty of his siblings. “They’ve been tremendous through all of it.”
Returning home to see them and his niece and nephews — Clay’s daughter Madeline and son Nicholas and Coty’s son Hunter — has been special, he added. The three young ones stayed at their grandparents’ place for the weekend when Rusty got home.
“They stayed here all this weekend,” Rusty said. “I made it a point to call them once a week (from Atlanta) to let them know how I was doing. Their parents did a great job explaining to them I was in the hospital but would be coming home.”
As for their reaction to see Uncle Rusty in a wheelchair … “They actually think it’s kind of neat,” their uncle said. “They think all the gadgets I’m using to eat and write are neat. They think it’s neat I can still do all those things, I just don’t do it the same way.”
That love from his family, as well as from friends, teammates, and total strangers has been overwhelming.
Lows and highs
Rusty reached a low point early on while still in Pensacola when he asked a nurse if that was as good as it gets. At the time he was still struggling to breathe and had no movement below the neck. Perhaps not wanting to give him false hope, the nurse answered yes.
“That took a toll mentally,” said Rusty. “I broke down. I thought the only thing I would be able to do was talk.”
The toughest thing was going from being completely independent to overnight not being able to do anything for himself, he said.
“You can’t be alone, you can’t scratch your face, you can’t get water for yourself,” he said. “Since time has gone on I’ve gotten a lot stronger and can do more things for myself.”
After he got to the Shepherd Center, and got out of intensive care, he began to see progress, he said. A tracheotomy helped him begin breathing more easily, and once that was closed up, he began making bigger strides.
“About the second week of in-patient therapy, my attitude really changed,” he said. “I saw I was the only one who could control what I could do.
“I think a lot of it also had to do with me just getting well. When I first got out of ICU, I had a lot of respiratory issues. I wasn’t strong. I just wasn’t healthy.”
The strides he’s made since then have been amazing. He’s begun using his shoulders and arms to the extent that he can now use a manual wheelchair much of the time, something his physicians didn’t think he’d be able to do initially.
He’s been taught how to feed himself with the use of wrist braces and special device to hold a fork. He types on a computer using pencils inserted into the braces, with the erasers used to push the keys.
“It was a combination of both (getting stronger and learning new techniques),” said Rusty. “Strength definitely played a big part of it, but a lot of it is technique and coordination.”
With a laugh, he added, “I can’t tell you how many times I stabbed myself in the mouth with a fork. The first time I brushed my teeth, I think I got more toothpaste on my cheeks and in my eyebrows than in my mouth. But for the most part now I can eat just about anything I want to without spilling.”
In addition to the techniques learned in therapy, it also has taken a lot of trial-and-error to relearn how to do many of the tasks he’d taken for granted before.
“The first time being at the apartment (where he stayed for outpatient therapy), trying to eat a hamburger or slice a pizza, you get messy and waste a lot of food,” he said. “But there’s only one way to learn how to do things — trial and error.”
Right now, he doesn’t have use of his triceps, which puts a lot more pressure on his shoulders and biceps to do things. The therapists at Lourdes have noticed some movement in his triceps and thumbs, however. Though not visible, it can be felt, which is promising.
“We’re doing electrical stimulation to slowly strengthen the triceps without burning them out,” said Rusty. “It will be over a long period of time. It’s the same process I’ve done for my wrists and for my scapulas.”
One of his big projects for recreational therapy at the Shepherd Center was learning to paint. His first effort was crude, he said, but a second one produced a Major League Baseball logo. Having never painted before, it was a different experience in its entirety.
“The first one was real difficult,” he said. “Physically I was weaker. My arms and shoulders got tired out real easy. Painting without fingers is real tough because you’re not using your wrist. You’re using all the shoulder muscles. It took a lot of time and a lot of energy. It was real simple.
“By the time the second one came around, I was a little stronger and a little more educated to what it would take to do it.”
Helping him maintain a positive attitude has been the support he’s received. Friends, teammates, coaches and fans from his high school days at New Iberia Senior High, college at UL-Lafayette and McNeese and his minor league baseball career in the Kansas City Royals organization and with the Pelicans all have checked in, whether in person or via phone or through messages at the CarePages site.
“You hate to use the word expect, but you kind of expect your close friends and family to be there for you,” Rusty said. “But the support from complete strangers was amazing. The support from ex-teammates I hadn’t seen in years, it lifted me up. It makes you realize you might lose contact, but you still have an impact. It was quite shocking, the number of people who kept up with the CarePages. People commented how much they liked reading the updates, but it was just as nice for me (knowing they cared).”
The Pelicans held several fundraisers to help cover costs for the Begnaud family, and a combined New Iberia-Lake Charles fundraiser was a tremendous success as well.
“The Pelicans have been phenomenal,” said Rusty. “You kind of understand that people in Lake Charles are going to do what they did, and that people in New Iberia are going to do what they did. I was in Pensacola for a very short time. For their support of me and my family, and for the community to get involved the way they did, we can’t say enough about the Pelicans organization and the community of Pensacola.”
And it was a little unexpected, he said.
“It’s kind of crazy. You don’t expect that,” he said. “It lets you know there are still good people out there. Whenever you watch the news, it’s only about negativity. It’s nice to know there are people who do the right thing even though they don’t know you. People care about you. It’s astounding.”
Two of his friends, former McNeese pitcher John Thomson and former Lafayette High pitcher Lance Cormier, are currently on the Atlanta Braves roster. That helped Rusty score a trip to the park with his dad, and the chance to meet one of his baseball idols, Braves ace John Smoltz.
“When (Cormier) came to the Shepherd Center, we talked and hung out,” said Begnaud. “He really wanted me to get out and catch a game, and I wanted to do it. When the time was right he and another friend, John Thomson, took the initiative to get it done.
“When we got to the game, Lance had gone above and beyond what he needed to do to make my first outing to a Braves game an unforgettable one. From the time we got to the stadium until after the game, we were treated basically like royalty.”
The best part was being able to interact with the major league players, he added.
“A lot of them had heard my story through Lance and John, and through Ed Montague, a major league umpire whose son I played with (for the Pelicans),” Rusty said. “The Braves players all came to use and visited for a brief moment. It was an unforgettable experience.”
The two were there for a late September-early October series with the Houston Astros, and many of the Astros players at the game also took the time to cross the field before the game to speak with Rusty.
“It’s nice to know that out of all the negative things you hear about baseball (and athletes in general), that these guys would go out of their way to visit.” Rusty said. “And for the Astros to come across the field — one of them, either (Craig) Biggio or (Lance) Berkman even missed his round in the (batting) cage. They took time out of their schedule to get ready for an important game, that meant playoffs or no playoffs, lets you know there are still good guys out there, even though they’re kind of overshadowed by guys who are defacing the game.”
Getting the chance to meet Smoltz also was special. Growing up, whether a Braves fan or not, he added, one had to respect them because of a pitching staff that included the big three of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Smoltz.
“(Smoltz) is an absolutely great guy,” said Rusty. “Baseball wise he’s a great player and we put him on a pedestal, but he’s just a great guy. It was amazing to get to hang out with one of my childhood idols.”
Better yet was being with his friends, Cormier and Thomson.
“I would have to say that as nice as it was to meet guys like Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox — and it was a huge thing for me to meet John Smoltz — but just to see Lance and John in their work Environment, to hang out with them, and visit with Lance and his wife before and after the games was the highlight of it all,” he said.
After taking a week off, Begnaud now plans to get back to therapy, with a return to the Shepherd Center next summer. The family just purchased a Chevrolet van through Musson-Patout, modified by an Atlanta company near the Shepherd Center, to help get Rusty around more easily.
And the Shepherd Center got them in touch with the people at Lourdes to start his home therapy. His return to Atlanta will help assess where he is and what new goals he can strive to reach.
“Right now nobody knows,” said Rusty. “It’s been four months since my accident. I’ve made tremendous strides physically and emotionally. In another six months, who knows what’s in store for me? We need to rewrite my goals, and try to work to be independent, which is the ultimate goal.”
And a comment he made, which has taken on a life of its own, summarizes his viewpoint nicely.
“My accident didn’t change me, it just changed the way I do things,” he said.
By Chris Landry The Daily Iberian