Avon Lake High School grad Keith Concar wanted to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but while volunteering near New Orleans in 2006, he suffered a devastating accident.
Concar, then 27 years old, was attending Kent State University when he decided to travel south with a group of volunteers to stay at the Baptist Church of Slidell, La., just north of New Orleans. With a background in construction, he uses his skills to help people whose homes had been destroyed.
About six months into his stay, Concar was driving his motorcycle to work when he was struck by another vehicle and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Although far from the rest of his family and friends, Concar said he never once felt alone after the accident.
“I was very fortunate. A lot of people will get in an accident in their hometown and get released from the hospital two weeks later and they’re back in life, except paralyzed,” he said. “I was living at a church, so when I woke up after the accident I had hundreds of people that go to that church supporting me and praying. I had 100 percent support from day one, and I’m very blessed for that.”
Concar said he harbors no ill feelings toward the woman who hit him.
“She came in to visit a couple times, and I was actually consoling her,” he said. “It was an accident. Things happen.”
However, frustration set in when Concar, a student without health insurance, was denied Medicaid in New Orleans because he was not a resident of the state. His dilemma was also left unresolved in his home state, as his Medicaid application in Ohio was denied because he had moved six months prior and was no longer considered a resident there either.
Concar decided to stay with his parents in North Carolina, where it took him three months to establish residency and start receiving health care. Many of his medical bills from the first six months after the accident remained, causing financial problems along the way.
Immediately after the accident, doctors were not optimistic about a full recovery. They told him that his spinal cord had suffered a complete sever, which meant he would never be able to walk again. Later, he said, the doctors retracted their original statement and gave him a window of hope when they said the spinal cord sever was incomplete.
While in North Carolina, Concar began attending physical therapy sessions at an outpatient facility, where he made progress, but he soon realized he would need a more concentrated program in order to move forward.
“They did the same thing for everybody,” he said. “They were good at what they did, but I needed more in-depth attention to my specific injury.”
In November 2008, Concar had saved enough money to move to San Diego, where he began an intensive therapy program with Project Walk, an organization that caters to the rehabilitation of those suffering from spinal cord injuries.
“I’ve been to all kinds of therapies, all over the U.S., did a lot of traveling, and turned out this was where it’s at,” he said. “Everyone is paying out of pocket to be here, so no one here is here because they have to be. Everyone wants to do this and has the desire and willpower to go through it, so it’s very motivating.”
Initially, he underwent physical therapy there three days a week for two hours a day, but at a cost of approximately $100 per hour of therapy Concar can no longer afford the sessions. He still comes to the center on his own, and the organization allows him to use its equipment.
“I’ve been out here four months already, and in the first two months I made more progress than I had in two years anywhere else,” he said. “It’s the best equipment you could possibly use and the best training you could possibly get.”
Now almost three years into his paralysis, Concar said he is continuously regaining the use of different leg muscles and getting stronger.
“Now I have feeling to just below my knee. I can flex and move my quads, hamstrings and glutes. I have insane nerve pain below the knee, so I know it’s there, but it’s just not kicking in. It’s like wearing a cast on your leg — you’re trying to move it, but the cast won’t let you. I just have to continuously build muscle.”
Progress is slow but constant, and it is often a struggle to be able to do everyday things.
“Doing daily routines and activities, that’s where the frustration sets in,” Concar said. “Sometimes not walking isn’t the problem, it’s more the simple things like trying to get into your own bathroom or trying to make your bed. It takes a long time to adapt to that, and it makes you become a more patient and humble person.”
Concar said he spends what little time he has outside of therapy playing adaptive sports like baseball and basketball. He recently discovered an aptitude for tennis. He has a tournament coming up in May on the United States Tennis Association circuit.
His ultimate goal is to play in the U.S. Open in September if he is able to get enough sponsorship for all the qualifying tournaments.
Concar said he is completely positive that one day he will walk again if he continues to get the proper amount of training and receives enough financial support to do so.
“You hit mini goals all the time, mini milestones that really turn out to be huge in the long run, and that’s what it takes. I’m not just going to stand up and walk out of nowhere, it’s going to be a little bit at a time,” he said. “I’ve always been one to run out and help so it’s very tough to ask for it. One day I’ll be able to stand without assistance but, the only way I’m going do that is with people’s help.”
To offer support or see photos of his progress, visit Concar’s Web site, www.kcwalk.com.
Jill Simonson | The Chronicle-Telegram