Just before I can offer, Nick asks me to hold the door open for him as he walks through. He says that he can open it himself, but jokes that he is feeling lazy after his workout with AccesSportAmerica at the YMCA gym. I hold the door; he uses his cane and walks slowly but with the capability born of long practice, and sits in one of the chairs at a small table. I sit in the other, and he pours out his story almost before I have my pen ready.
Nick was a taxi driver in Boston for over twenty years, he tells me with pride. Then, three and a half years ago, at age 55, he had a stroke and lost the use of the left side of his body. He remembers the independence he enjoyed before his stroke: “You have no idea how much I miss that. And then this happens, you know?” In the accent of his native Italy, he speaks with intense need to tell his story but no trace of self-pity.
“My agenda is just: Walk again. From Day One I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me. And I can tell you this, it’s not an easy task. It’s a seven-day-a-week job to recovery.”
Nick is currently collecting Social Security disability benefits and living in a group home. He is still unable to work, and needs help with his activities of daily living. “You lose your dignity,” he says. “I’m still depending on others, and depending on the system. Is that frustrating? Yes.”
Some of his frustration comes from his loss of autonomy. He also contends with the difficulty of depending on “the system” for his basic needs. His Social Security benefits are just enough to cover his rent and his fares on The Ride, an MBTA van that transports people who cannot take other forms of transportation because of their disability. We are talking as he waits for The Ride, as he frequently has to—often for an hour or more. He has lost his trust in doctors. “As far as I’m concerned they overmedicate you.” He tells me that his insurance has just stopped paying for the occupational therapy he needs to help him regain full use of his left arm. “The arm is the last thing to come back. They don’t waste too much time with that.”
Despite these barriers, Nick takes in stride the hand life dealt him, and steadily works toward the future instead of giving in to his frustrations. “Things could be much worse than they are. At no point have I gotten down on myself.” When the occupational therapy for his arm ended, he kept exercising the arm on his own: this failure of the system did not stop or even slow his dedicated work to recover from his stroke.
In his recovery process, Nick relies heavily on his stubborn determination and on AccesSportAmerica, a private, non-profit organization that helps him with physical therapy at the YMCA. “For those of us that have a rough go of it, we are fortunate to have people who are involved in physical therapy to help us. AccesSportAmerica: I can’t say enough good things about them. They treat me like family. They’re the best, I tell you that. It’s mental therapy too, with these folks. There’s kidding around. You become friends—you can’t help it. I look forward to coming to the YMCA more than anything else I do.
“I know I’ll be able to walk again in the near future, and that’s what keeps me going.” Nick explains that he works out at the YMCA four days out of every week, pushing himself to regain full use of his body. He estimates that in six months to a year he will have achieved his goal. “It’s very hard physical work, if you want to recover. There’s no shortcuts. There are days you wake up sore and a little unmotivated, but you have to force yourself.
“I don’t let nothing beat me up, I tell you that.”
For more information on AccesSportAmerica, see http://www.accessportamerica.org.