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Paralympics Inspire Patients Back Where Games Began

  • Al Pessin

STOKE MANDEVILLE, Britain — The Paralympic Games, which end Sunday in London, have been the largest such event in history, with nearly 4,300 athletes from 160 countries taking part over 12 days. The idea of competitive sports for disabled people had its origins 60 years ago, at a British hospital only 75 kilometers from London's Olympic Park.

At Britain’s National Spinal Injuries Center, they are proud of their link to the Paralympics. While patients these days learn how to live after crippling trauma, with the constant help of physical therapists, the Games are not far from their minds.

“We know some of those people competing, and we know that their journey started here, so we’re behind them all the way,” said Dott Tussler, the Head of Physical Therapy. She said the hospital still uses sports as an important part of its rehabilitation program.

“We use sport as a vehicle for improving balance, strength, coordination, wheelchair skills and wheelchair mobility," said Tussler. "As well as those physical attributes, you can then go on to build the fun element of doing things together in a group.”

They do that at a sports facility next door, dedicated to the refugee doctor who came to Britain from Nazi Germany and introduced the concept of sports for disabled people.

Dr. Ludwig Guttmann believed that sports would help heal his patients, physically and emotionally, and that an international disabled games would help heal the wounds of the war.

Today, that idea has grown into a nearly two-week event staged shortly after the Olympics and followed around the world. And the Games send a message to new patients back at Dr. Guttmann's old hospital that they can lead full lives again in spite of their injuries.

Twenty-four-year-old Christopher Haynes is one of Stoke Mandeville’s latest success stories. After a diving injury a year ago, he underwent months of surgery and rehabilitation, including the sports program.

“You play the games that are suitable for you. Because they’ve been doing it for so long, they know exactly what. Because I’m tall, because I’m young, I’m suitable for wheelchair rugby,” said Haynes.

Chris is ready to move out of the hospital. He said sports may play a larger role in his life than they did before he was injured, thanks to this rehabilitation program and the Paralympic Games that grew out of it.

"It’s inspirational. It lets you know what you can do in three or four years. I need to start playing sports," said Haynes. "There’s no reason I shouldn’t. You know, back to work, get back to my social life, get myself a girlfriend. And if all goes well, try and aim for Rio.”

That would be the next Paralympic Games in Brazil in 2016. It’s a lofty goal for Chris and the other patients here, but Guttmann believed lofty goals are just what they need.
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