Ten years ago today, then-19-year-old Adam Gorlitsky was driving home to Mount Pleasant from Columbia when he fell asleep and his speeding car spun out of control, crashing on Interstate 26.
The accident severed the spine of the former Wando High School basketball player and runner, left him paralyzed and changed the course of his life.
When doctors at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, the nation’s top spinal cord and brain injury rehab hospital, told him he’d never walk again, Gorlitsky described it “as a punch in the gut.”
And he never truly believed it.
In the months and years to come, friends and acquaintances often asked if or when he’d ever walk again, and despite what he was told, Gorlitsky often responded that he would walk in about 10 years. The answer was based partly in the faith of modern technology.
His prediction came true, for the most part. More than three months ago, he stood and took his first steps with the use of a ReWalk Exoskeleton, an FDA-cleared robotic exterior skeleton, with the help of rehabilitation experts at Roper Hospital.
The exoskeleton provides people with spinal cord injuries the ability to stand up and walk. However, the device is far from creating total independence because the FDA says a trained individual must escort users.
Since then, he has continued to train at Roper but has been working out with personal trainers to build his strength and endurance in preparation for getting his own exoskeleton, a newer version of the one used at Roper.
The delivery is expected Wednesday. .
As the reality that Gorlitsky would walk again, he decided to embark on a goal: walking the Cooper River Bridge Run and Walk on April 2.
Why the Bridge Run?
“It’s the pinnacle Charleston race and I’ve never done it,” said Gorlitsky, a 4:50 miler and cross-country runner while at Wando.
He said he could’ve done the Bridge Run in a wheelchair for years, but it wasn’t until earlier this year, when he started researching exoskeletons, that he even wanted to talk about activities such as this.
“This is a personal journey to reclaim my body,” Gorlitsky said.
Bridge Run Race Director Julian Smith met with Gorlitsky months ago and not only gave him the OK, but he and staff are helping him set up a foundation. “I think he’s determined and is an inspiration to anyone who meets him,” Smith said.
Because Gorlitsky will be walking relatively slowly, Smith hasn’t decided a strategy yet to make sure he’s able to cross the bridge before police reopen it to traffic. He anticipates letting him start walking shortly after the wheelchair race starts, typically at 7:20 a.m. on race day.
The obstacles to walk again went beyond the physical.
Gorlitsky has been working hard to raise money to pay for the high-tech exoskeleton, which costs $80,000, in a campaign called “I Got Legs.”
He set up a site, gofundme.com/igotlegs, and has been selling T-shirts for $20 each with the “I Got Legs” slogan across the front. He’s been a presence at 2nd Sunday on King Street, the Turkey Day and Reindeer Run events, and at the Charleston Farmers Market.
As of Christmas week, he had raised about $10,000. Gorlitsky said he will be expected to pay off the suit within 120 days.
His father, Stan Gorlitsky, said he is confident that Adam will accomplish his goals.
“This poor guy has been working his tush off to make it happen. This has been 10 years in the making, too. Most people can’t use this because of bone density, the need to live near a hospital and you have to have a certain amount of chutzpa, which he has.”
Meanwhile, Adam Gorlitsky sees walking in the exoskeleton as a stepping stone, a preparation for the future cure for paralysis. He’ll be ready when that comes along.