Before it happened, Romulo “Romy” Camargo spent his days and nights loaded down with a hundred pounds of body armor, weapons and ammo, slogging through steamy South American jungles and driving through dusty Afghan valleys.
As a chief warrant officer for the Green Berets in 7th Special Forces Group, Camargo helped train Colombian troops to fight drug traffickers and survived deadly firefights, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
Then came the shot that did not miss.
“I got hit in the back of the neck,” says Camargo, 38, sitting in a motorized wheelchair strapped into the passenger side of a specially equipped van heading to Orlando, where he is fighting a new battle, against the injury that has left him paralyzed from the shoulders down and in need of breathing assistance since being hit by a sniper's bullet on Sept. 16, 2008.
For the past 18 months, that battle has meant four-hour roundtrips from his New Tampa home twice a week for three hours of intensive therapy at Project Walk Orlando, a spinal cord injury rehabilitation center. But while the sessions are productive, giving Camargo hope, helping him restore some movement and maintaining the health of the rest of his body, the constant travel is grinding him down.
Seeing the wear and tear on her family, especially her husband, Gaby Camargo devised what the military would call a new concept of operations in the campaign to get Camargo back on his feet.
Instead of spending so many hours on Interstate 4, the couple, with Gaby the driving force, is working to create a spinal cord injury rehabilitation center near their home. The center will cater to civilians as well as veterans and greatly reduce the stress of commuting.
But first Gaby had to convince her husband to take that leap.
On the coldest morning of the new year, Gaby Camargo, 38, is putting the last touches on the hours-long process of getting her husband ready to make the long biweekly trek. She adjusts a wool cap with the Green Beret logo on his head, making sure it fits properly, and gives him a kiss.
For Camargo, Orlando mornings start at 6 a.m. with help from caregivers.
“They dress him up, then brush his teeth and wash his face,” says Gaby Camargo. “It takes an hour to be ready, they have to put him on a lift, and make sure he is sitting in the wheelchair. He needs to be sitting right.”
At just about 8 a.m. on the dot, caregiver Liliana Gomez helps Camargo navigate his wheelchair out of the house and into the white, 2011 Town 'N Country van.
“It had 16,000 miles on it when we got it in January of 2012,” says Camargo, as Gomez straps him into the vehicle with a fold-down ramp and slots up front to secure the wheelchair. “Now it has 71,000 miles. You can see how much driving we have to do.”
Camargo began going to Project Walk Orlando, a much-lauded rehab center, in July 2012.
“I heard a patient at the VA talking about it,” says Camargo as Gomez turns onto I-4. “I looked into it and it was all action-oriented therapy.”
And that is what the doctor ordered, quite literally.
In April 2011, Camargo went to Lisbon to undergo a promising new treatment where stem cells from his nose would be placed in his spine, to help rejuvenate the nerves there.
But that surgery — olfactory mucosa autograph, or OMA — required an intensive rehabilitation process to have any real benefit.
The rehab program at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital didn't provide that level of intensity, say the Camargos.
“Wait,” says Camargo as the van cruises along the highway. “You'll see what I mean.”
Every so often, as other drivers get too close, or someone is weaving in and out of traffic or otherwise disregarding the rules of the road, Camargo, helpless in his wheelchair, blanches, pointing out the transgressions.
“Did you see that guy?” he says every so often.
About 90 minutes into the trip, as if on cue, traffic bottlenecks near Exit 72, just before the International Drive exit.
“See what I mean?” says Camargo. “I hate this drive. But I'm not going to get better if I don't do anything. What will I accomplish if I sit around depressed?”
Despite the traffic, the van pulls up at Project Walk Orlando, tucked into a Longwood shopping plaza a few doors down from the Ali Baba House of Kabobs restaurant, right around 10 a.m. as scheduled.
Gomez pushes a button, the ramp folds down and Camargo wheels off and into the rehabilitation center, one of nearly a dozen spread out around the globe.
Camargo is quickly greeted by Richard Pregliasco and Anthony Carbin, two spinal cord recovery specialists certified by Project Walk's headquarters program in Carlsbad, Calif.
Project Walk in Orlando was started five years ago by Liza Riedel, after her daughter Amanda became a quadriplegic following a 2007 automobile accident.
Project Walk Orlando has about 75 clients, says Riedel, most in their teens and 20s who have been injured in extreme sports and car accidents. About 4 percent, she says, are veterans like Camargo.
Treatment begins as the two spinal cord recovery specialists lift Camargo out of his chair and onto an exercise table, where they begin the first of several exercises over the next three hours designed to increase Camargo's range of motion as well as improve his breathing and blood circulation.
It is a grueling regimen, for both Camargo and the men who are helping him.
Camargo begins his first exercise, where his hands are placed in gloves with Velcro that allows them to be wrapped around a metal bar. The object, says Pregliasco, is to induce a series of spasms in the muscles in Camargo's back and upper shoulders.
“Come on, Romy, push,” says Pregliasco as Camargo hunches forward toward the bar.
“Hopefully, we can turn those spasms into voluntary movement,” says Pregliasco.
There are several more exercises, including one where Camargo is hoisted up into a harness that is attached to a treadmill. As the treadmill moves, Pregliasco and Carbin sit on either sides of Camargo, each grabbing one of Camargo's knees with their right hand and his ankles with their left, moving Camargo's feet forward to simulate walking.
For them, it is excruciating work, requiring frequent rest intervals because of the way they are squatting and bearing Camargo's weight.
For Camargo, it is a brief respite from being chairbound that has benefits mental and physical.
“It is amazingly good to be upright,” says Camargo. After nearly three hours, Gomez helps Camargo, who has been placed back in his chair, adjust his clothing for the blast of cold air on the way out to the van and the ensuing long, thankfully uneventful ride home.
John Merritt is one of Camargo's biggest supporters.
Merritt was chief of the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at Haley when Camargo first came in.
“I was involved in advocating for him to have the (stem cell) procedure done,” says Merritt. “Then I advocated for him to have the ongoing therapy.”
Without it, the prognosis is grim, says Merritt.
“He was destined for a shortened life, being on ventilator and then gradual deterioration of his body below the level of injuries.”
Camargo says that after the surgery and attending Project Walk Orlando “my breathing has gotten stronger, my muscle tone is a lot better, my core, stability and balance have gotten stronger, I have increased movement in upper body from my shoulders down to above my chest and overall quality of life has extremely improved.”
Merritt, who retired last year after a decade with the VA, is so impressed with the progress and potential that he is going to serve as chief medical adviser for the Camargo's new center.
“There is nothing like it in the community in the sense of having available the kind of intensity we plan,” says Merritt.
Merritt's replacement at the VA sees a place for the Camargos' center.
“Once veterans complete their inpatient and outpatient rehab programs they continue to work on rehab goals every day while in the community,” says Kevin White, Haley's current chief of the spinal cord injury program. “This proposed rehabilitation center may be another resource that all spinal cord injury patients in our community, veteran and non-veteran alike, could use to help achieve these personal goals.”
It's a challenging endeavor, says Merritt.
“I'm actually quite pleased that Romy and Gaby had the drive to go about and do this,” he says. “It has been a lot of work for them, and will be lot of work, getting systems in place, raising funds, getting the right people in place. You have to have someone who is dedicated and has the drive and persistency. They have shown those kinds of qualities over the last five years.”
For the Camargos, the idea to create a Tampa rehab center came about a year ago.
“It was a Sunday and we were coming back from the church,” says Gaby Camargo. “I was talking to him and said, 'Why not do this in Tampa?' and he was like, 'Are you crazy?'”
Romy Camargo, who had risked his life in combat, was worried about risking everything he had left to start up his own company. But Gaby Camargo, a lawyer in her native Venezuela, persisted.
“She's the one driving this,” says a grateful Camargo.
Gaby Camargo estimates they will need about a half-million dollars to open up the center, hire people, purchase equipment and keep the place going for a few years. They have created the Stay In Step SCI Foundation, a nonprofit corporation.
They've had a great deal of help from the Tampa area military community. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel who has stayed by the Camargos side since the injury, hosted a kickoff fundraiser at his Riverview home and continues to provide support. So has Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret master sergeant and strategic development director of the Green Beret Foundation, which helped with the initial funding drive. And retired Marine Lt. Gen. Marty Steele, now the University of South Florida's associate vice president for veterans research, who has pledged USF interns and other help for the center.
Initially, about five clients have been targeted, three from the military and two civilians.
“We are very excited,” says Gaby Camargo, adding that if all goes well, she and her husband hope to open up sometime in the summer. “I can't describe with words what this means for us. This is not just a business. This will help Romy and others. This is what we live every day.”
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Editor's Note: A previous version of this story had a different spelling for Richard Pregliasco.