TAMPA — Richard Sabb considers himself thrice blessed.
He’s cheated death not once, not twice, but three times. First, it was a blood clot on his spine that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Then a severe blood infection landed him in hospice. And most recently, a stroke and massive bone infection resulted in the amputation of his left leg and part of his hip.
“I tell Richard he’s like a cat,” says longtime friend Linda Brown. “He’s still got a few more lives left in him.”
Each time he faced adversity, Sabb, 66, fought back. But this latest blow to his health is forcing him to make some drastic changes in his life. He can no longer work, drive or live on his own. That’s just the way it is.
And he had to face a decision.
A specially equipped vehicle was donated to him years ago, making it possible for him to have some independence. It was his turn to pay it forward, to give it away to a deserving person facing similar challenges.
Who would it be?
Hard work defines Sabb.
For 22 years, the father of five worked as a cook in a frozen-food plant in Salisbury, Md. When the plant closed, he got a job in the kitchen at a nursing home.
Then, on Sept. 12, 1996, life as Sabb knew it changed radically. As he drove into the parking lot of the nursing home, a sharp pain shot through his back and stomach.
Both legs started tingling. Then he felt nothing. He couldn’t move at all. He dropped the cup of coffee he had just bought at a convenience store and cried out. Someone called 911.
He woke up in intensive care at a local hospital, paralyzed by a blood clot in his lower spine. Doctors told him that such a condition only occurred once in 250,000 people. In typical fashion, he responded: “Guess that makes me pretty rare.”
Sabb relied on his strong Christian faith and his wife to help him adjust to life without the use of his legs. Then a year later, another blow. His spouse of 20 years was diagnosed with cancer in her pancreas and lung.
She was given six months to live, but only survived three. “Why me, Lord?” Sabb asked.
He needed help with his youngest daughter, Lattrice, 13. And the Maryland winters were too brutal for a man in his condition. So he moved back to the Bradenton area, where he had grown up. Lattrice moved in with Sabb’s oldest daughter and her husband; he moved in with his sister.
He would sit in his wheelchair on her porch day after day, drinking beer and watching cars drive by. Sabb felt as if he was sinking into a dark abyss.
Then in 1999, someone told him about Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, a state agency that assists people with disabilities in finding work, housing and education. He knew getting back in the job market would save him. Sabb didn’t like relying others.
With the help of counselor Linda Brown, life took another dramatic turn. Although she had never worked with a paraplegic before, she liked his enthusiasm and his willingness to do whatever it would take. She connected him with Hands On Education’s culinary training program at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, designed for workers with disabilities. And she found him a stand-up wheelchair, which would make a kitchen job possible.
He took the training, passed with flying colors and was hired by the Hyatt to do prep work in the kitchen. Sabb relocated to Tampa to start over once again.
For a while, he relied on the public bus system. But after Brown’s physician husband died, another gift came his way. Hands On purchased the doctor’s 2000 Lincoln Town Car, and Bill Weber of Mobility Transportation Systems in Tampa installed hand controls for free. Sabb got a car. More important, he had some independence restored.
“Richard taught me so much about rehabilitation,” says Brown, now retired. “Some people have arthritis in their knees and they quit working. But people like Richard, with so many more obstacles, don’t give up. He’ll always be a hero to me.”
John Ficca, founder of Hands On, agrees. When he first met Sabb, he asked him bluntly: Can you transfer yourself to the stand-up chair and work as a cook again?
“I’m not handicapped,” Sabb replied. “I just can’t walk.”
The two had an instant rapport. As time went on, Sabb was more than a graduate of the program to Ficca. He became an advocate for people with disabilities, going to conferences and mentoring others in his situation. For all the encouragement he’s given to the disabled by his example, Ficca dubbed him “The Ambassador.”
“Richard demonstrates that almost anyone can work with the proper support and accommodations,” Ficca says. “Heroes overcome adversity and always remain positive and confident in their abilities. And I’m proud to call this local hero my friend.”
Sabb’s nearly perfect work attendance record was disrupted in January 2007, when he contracted a severe blood infection after a routine medical procedure. Told he only had six months to live, he was moved into a hospice facility in Sun City.
Family members and friends like Brown and Ficca kept a vigil by his bedside. They prayed for a miracle.
They also began making funeral arrangements, just in case.
But after several months, a hospice worker said it was time to send Sabb home. “Hospice is for the dying, and Richard, you are not dying,” he was told.
He thanked his supporters and told them he had never given up on God, and apparently, “God didn’t give up on me.” By August of that year, he was back at the Hyatt.
The latest blow came last June. He had been off work for a few days and no one had heard from him. Finally, his daughter in Bartow called a neighbor. Would you check in on my father?
He was found lodged between his bed and the wall, severely dehydrated and stricken by a stroke.
A doctor told him he was “one of the sickest men” he had seen in his life. A major bone infection had erupted from a previous wound. The only way they could save his life was to amputate his entire left leg and part of his hip.
“I was mad at the whole world,” Sabb says of those dark post-operation days.
He had to give up his apartment and move into a long-term rehabilitation facility. Though he had reached a respectable retirement age, he didn’t want to quit his job. But he had no choice.
The one thing he did have control of was donating that Lincoln Town Car. As much as he dreamed of driving again, deep down he knew it was unlikely. So he and Ficca worked with a local resource center for the disabled to seek applicants.
Sabb had an idea for what the recipient would be like.
Someone who was nice with a great sense of humor. Someone who cared about other people and had a positive attitude, unwilling to give up when the going gets tough. And someone who worked at least 20 hours a week and was a responsible, dependable employee.
He didn’t realize it as he rattled off those traits that he was looking for someone like him.
“That pretty much sums up Richard,” Ficca says.
They got about two dozen applications.
Many of the candidates were deserving, but one application stood out. Six co-workers and friends wrote nominations for Rebecca Crosby, 34, who works at WellCare in Tampa doing research in the advocacy and community-based programs department. They called her a hard worker, sweet-spirited and positive.
She’s been in a wheelchair her whole life, born with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy. All four of her limbs are impaired, but that hasn’t stopped her from earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Central Florida, and working as a PartyLite consultant on the side.
Richard wanted to give her the Town Car, but getting in and out of a sedan required assistance. So Weber of Mobility Transportation Services and Ficca came up with a plan: They sold the Lincoln and bought a wheelchair-accessible 2003 Ford E-250 van from the Gulf Coast chapter of Paralyzed Veterans.
For a second time, Weber dug into his own funds and had the van repainted and upgraded.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he says, shrugging off his contribution. “It’s going to work so much better for her. I’m just glad to do whatever I can.”
Crosby was giddy with delight on the day they presented her with the van. She got to meet Sabb for the first time, and they immediately hit it off.
“It’s definitely going to be named after him,” she promises.
She’s never driven before. The van still needs some retrofitting to accommodate her chair and the special controls she will need. She’ll have to be trained in how to drive.
But, oh, the possibilities! Crosby couldn’t stop beaming as she looked at the vehicle. She felt just like Sabb did so many years earlier when he got the Lincoln.
“Road trip, here I come,” Crosby says. “Being able to drive is going to open so many doors for me. I won’t have to depend on buses or friends to get places. I can expand my business, buy a house, help others who need transportation. It’s going to be life-changing in so many ways.”
Her benefactor, dapper in his chauffeur’s cap, smiled broadly.
Life hasn’t always been fair. He’s had his share of bad breaks. But on this day, Richard Sabb felt like the luckiest man alive.