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HomeNewsHospital organizes team for those with spinal cord injuries

Hospital organizes team for those with spinal cord injuries

After an accident five years ago robbed him of the use of his legs, Joe Papale figured his days playing in a softball league were over.

He was wrong.

Later this month, Papale will join other disabled athletes from across the Hudson Valley in a softball game that will be played in Haverstraw.

Helen Hayes Hospital is organizing a team to play wheelchair softball, a sport that is growing in popularity among the disabled.

“It’s part of our mission of healing,” said Elaine DeFrancesco, a Physical Therapy supervisor on the spinal cord unit of the West Haverstraw Rehabilitation hospital. “For people with spinal cord injuries, it’s not just about getting in and out of bed and dressing themselves — healing is all about quality of life and being able to do the things they used to do before their injury.”

The hospital is starting its softball program with help from United Spinal Association, a Queens, N.Y.-based advocacy group for the disabled, which has numerous sports and recreational programs.

“Sports is what got me back into the real world after my injury,” said Billy Hannigan, a membership consultant for the organization who was paralyzed after a 1995 motorcycle accident. “It makes you feel good about yourself again.”

Hannigan, a Long Island resident, often travels to New York City to take part in sports events for the disabled. He is a member of the United Mets, a team made up of wheelchair-bound players that is sponsored by the New York Mets.

In an effort to expand the sports and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities, Hannigan is working with hospitals like Helen Hayes and other organizations. He hopes to start teams and leagues throughout the New York metropolitan region.

“We want to make adaptive sports more widely available,” Hannigan said. “That’s why we are trying to reach out and give people a chance to play.”

And the growing emphasis on sports and recreation for the disabled reflects larger changes in medicine. People with spinal cord injuries are living longer, fuller lives than ever before, advocates said.

Because people with serious injuries are living longer, they face the same consequences of aging as everyone else, including a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease. The best antidote is regular exercise.

In addition to softball, United Spinal, formerly known as the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, also has teams of wheelchair athletes who play basketball, rugby, tennis, skiing and sled hockey.

It’s not that difficult to outfit a paralyzed athlete to play softball, Hannigan said.

Many people who use a wheelchair still have use of their arms. That allows them, with some practice, to bat and catch. Those athletes often use a camber, a device put on the wheel of the wheelchair that gives a slight tilt so the bottom is closer together than the top to keep the chair from tipping over.

Players who are quadriplegics — those who have limited or no use of their arms — are also welcome on the team, Hannigan said.

The games are played on dirt fields rather than grassy surfaces because they are easier for wheelchairs to navigate.

Some athletes also use special chest straps and bats that are adapted for use by the disabled. The team will use a 16-inch Clincher-style softball.

Some of the adaptive equipment is expensive. People who play on the Helen Hayes team will be able to use some equipment provided by United Spinal.

Papale, a Fishkill, N.Y., resident who goes to Helen Hayes for rehabilitation services, said he occasionally pitches a ball to his 13-year-old son.

“But it will be nice to get out there on the field again and play,” he said.

When he and other patients get onto the baseball diamond, they will face their former doctors and therapists. Helen Hayes staff members will get into wheelchairs and join the disabled players in the game.

“They can challenge the people who tortured them during their rehab days,” DeFrancesco joked.

But the real purpose of the game is for people to enjoy themselves, she said.

“It promotes exercise in a fun way,” she said. “That’s what rehab is all about.”

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