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Column: The power of Obie, the strength of his friends

Published 11:36 am, Friday, July 23, 2010
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Tim Dunne is 31. He broke his neck in a diving accident in an in-ground pool one week removed from Obie Harrington-Howes' paralyzing swimming accident at Jones Beach in 1997.

Dunne is one of six handicapped men who have made the trip to Terry Connors Rink to witness the second offering of the Big Assist, the charity hockey game named in Obie's honor. The wheeled men all sit in the specialized wooden handicapped area on the far side of the rink. Unless you're looking for it, it'd be easy to glaze your eyes over the cornered-off area that's tucked against the wall.

Dunne is no hockey fan -- he's a volunteer basketball coach in his Long Island hometown of Northport -- but he and Obie have had a connection ever since that summer of '97, when the two went through brutal rehab sessions. They've remained close ever since, making sure to see each other once or twice per year.

Like Obie, Dunne has a foundation in his name -- Friends of Tim Dunne -- and it holds a charity golf outing each year. So now Dunne, two decades younger than Obie, is returning the favor and visiting his friend. It's a relationship that has done the one thing each man's spine has refused to do: bond. That's the crippling-yet-rewarding irony.

"Obie's a great guy," Dunne says as he watches action take place on the opposite side of the rink, the score 2-0 (Blue team over White) in the second period. "I know how involved he was in the community before his injury, and now, after his injury, he's doing so much for the people that have suffered from spinal cord injuries."

Obie's watching the game from another location at the rink. Tonight, it's Obie's night, and he'll shake well more than 200 hands, many of them attached to bodies of people he's never met. But all the men who suffer from similar afflictions sit quietly and watch the exhibition game play out from that corner of the facility.

Another one of them is Todd Johnston, who is 49. He was driving his motorcycle in Danbury on July 23, 1982. He took the last steps of his life the seconds before he hopped on his hog. He wasn't wearing a helmet. Johnston spent six months in the hospital following the injury. He can't recall the accident and has never recovered sight in his right eye. He's a T4.

"That's the language we speak," Johnston says. So many handicapped men and women, boys and girls, introduce themselves as such:

"Hi, Todd Johnston, nice to meet you. I'm a T4."

That's the medical term for the part of his spine that's forever severed from its rightful place. It's statistical and personal all at once. Card-carrying members of club they never asked to join. Johnston has far and away the most energy of any of them wheeled men in attendance, occasionally bursting out instructions to the players on the ice. He works with the Connecticut chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA).

Earlier this year Obie went to an NSCIA event, spread the word about the Big Assist, so Johnston instinctively showed up. The two aren't friends; they're mere acquaintances who understand the code about how each other's universe works. When Obie invited him, Johnston didn't think twice. It just is how things are done.

Like a few of the men at the Big Assist, Johnston will reap the benefits of the Obie Harrington-Howes foundation when, in 2011, he'll be receiving a service dog -- a king shepherd -- to help him with everyday tasks.

Stathi Hasiotis is 24. He fell from a tree 13 months ago and landed in nearly the worst possible position. His parents had to hear the news while vacationing in Greece. The first person to see him at the hospital was his brother, Pete, who shares the same intense love for music he does. Pete's in attendance tonight, fetching food for his brother and showing nothing but love. The two are a year apart in age. Stathi's a quadriplegic, C6 through 8, and he introduces himself in the same demeanor as Johnston did.

"I knew nothing about this stuff before. I'm real lucky in many ways," he says of being in that chair.

He also says the word "lucky" at least six times throughout the 10-minute conversation, and there's a tone of gratefulness every time it comes out of his mouth, as if he's still waiting for his body to further shut down and leave him paralyzed from the neck down.

But that's not the case. He's a musician. And despite the fact his feet won't move, he's still going to play the drums. Trumpet, too. He can no longer beat the batter head of a kick drum with a double-bass pedal (one of the things he misses the most), but he won't keep quiet about everything he's thankful for.

"I'm lucky to have arm function. There's so much. You have no idea," he says.

He's working toward getting his driver's license, and is now taking classes to get a degree and begin a career. Before the accident he was doing electrical work for commercial businesses and getting his apprenticeship in that field. That dream died the second he slipped off that branch.

Stathi is another recipient of the graciousness and power that the Obie Harrington-Howes foundation embodies. In the months following the accident, the most hellish thing about Stathi's life were the mornings. Getting out of bed and preparing for a day was taking so much longer than it needed to.

But now he's in a Select Comfort bed, thanks to a grant from Obie's foundation, and it's specially designed to allow him in and out quickly.

"Not only for comfort, but the adjustments," he said. "That's huge. To save my upper body from working all the time. You waste a lot of energy, you don't even realize, getting ready in the morning."

Peter Healy is 57. He snapped his neck on the opening kickoff of the St. Michael's-Providence College football game in 1971. Healy was playing for St. Michael's and heading down field, full-speed ahead. Suddenly, he was down, but very conscious. He felt the pain on the field, to the stretcher, into the ambulance and all the way to the downtown Providence hospital. Healy's known Obie the least amount of time, just two weeks.

The two met at the NSCIA annual picnic on June 26. Obie's casual with his convincing, and Healy says it was a no-brainer to show after he met the man.

"I said, `Of course I'll go,'" Healy states, his voice so soft it makes it hard to hear him speak above the wave of children who are shrieking in delight at watching professional hockey players grace their hometown rink.

He lives in Stamford. In fact, Healy used to work for the company (Hearst) that publishes this newspaper. He was part of a wave of layoffs 18 months ago, and now he freelances. In the newspaper industry, the older you are, the more vulnerable you are to being let go. His loss of a job had nothing to do with his physical limitations. But his mind's still sharp and he's not done working. Not even close. Retirement is the furthest thing from his mind.

Michael Molgano is 51. Like Dunne, he lost the ability to walk after he underestimated the depths of the pool he was diving into. His skull abruptly met the pool floor, and that will always be an image that makes the body cringe.

Molgano drives, and drives well. But the specialized van he used was getting old. He needed a new one. He heard of the foundation through a friend, Nancy Condon, whom he met while working in the 16th District of Stamford. It's a job title Molgano still holds. Thanks to Obie and events like the Big Assist, Molgano doesn't have to worry about getting a van to transport him to work for the city of Stamford, or IT work, which he was involved in for a number of years.

Gilbert Mathurin is 63. His paralysis did not come unexpectedly; slowly, he mutated toward it. Born in the Caribbean, on the island of Saint Lucia, Gilbert matriculated to the United States in his early 20s. It was after college that he began to have severe pressure in his lower back.

Doctors soon realized what was happening: multiple sclerosis. Gilbert has been living with constant pressure falling in on his spine for nearly 40 years. His hands are still strong, relatively speaking, and he speaks fondly of the past two scores of his life, when he was teaching social studies.

Gilbert has known Obie for five years. They met through the NSCIA. His English is still mildly broken through his Caribbean accent, but his spirit is so high. He's shy, no doubt, and in that way, perhaps, he most closely resembles Obie.

It's clear that, although the night was dedicated to Obie Harrington-Howes' foundation, the six men who came to support their friend were as much an inspiration. Even if they were hard to see, it was nearly impossible to not feel their presence.