Her routine is rigorous. Physically exhausting. Emotionally draining. Some days, it's outright overwhelming.
Gina Giaffoglione would have it no other way.
One year removed from an auto accident that has left her with full paralysis in the lower half of her body, the 22-year-old Wayne State College student is determined as ever to return to a lifestyle of total independence.
"Going back to school in Wayne, oh my gosh, it was wonderful,” Gina said during a recent interview. “It felt so good to go back to class and ‘the life’ I had before.”
Gina sustained life-threatening injuries in the accident that occurred on March 22, 2008. The days, weeks and months immediately after the accident were spent in hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and counseling centers, where she was forced to adjust to her new life in a wheelchair.
The paralysis was a difficult pill to swallow, especially for a vibrant and athletic young woman known for the graceful tumbling routines she perfected at her dad’s gym in Glenwood.
Gina’s exhibited that very same grace over the past 12 months while working vigorously to not only regain the use of her legs, but to maintain a positive frame of mind and to get on with a productive life.
Last October, Gina moved back to Wayne, in northeast Nebraska, from her parents’ home in Glenwood. She completed fall course work online and returned to classes in January.
“I wanted to get used to living on my own before having to deal with school, so I finished online classes,” she said. “It was just good to get back to student life. Not that getting around campus is easy, but now it’s getting nice, it should be better. I can’t wait until spring. I can’t wait until it’s 90 degrees outside.”
Gina has two sets of wheels that get her around – her wheelchair and a pick-up truck that was custom-altered for her last summer by Siebert Mobility, Inc. The truck is equipped with an accelerator and brake mechanism on the steering wheel and remote control-operated wheelchair lift.
It took some practice, but Gina’s mastered her truck.
“It didn’t take as long as I thought it would,” Gina said. “I hit my truck a few times with the wheelchair, but I’m going to blame it on the wind.
“It’s better now that it’s not so cold. I can take my time a little bit more. I was kind of in a hurry when it was 30 (degrees) below outside.”
Gina’s truck was purchased with funds raised during a day-long, community-wide fundraiser staged in Glenwood last July by friends of the Giaffoglione family. “Gina G Day” featured a variety of events, including a 10-K run, golf tournament, spaghetti dinner and auction.
She is grateful for the truck and the support she and her family have received since the accident.
“It’s wonderful to have that truck,” she said. “I have some other friends I’ve met who are in wheelchairs and they don’t have cars. It’s very reassuring to know that I have a vehicle. They have to rely on other people to take them somewhere.”
Gina is a senior at Wayne State, on course to earn a bachelor’s degree in counseling next December. After that, she’ll pursue a master’s.
“I want to be a community counselor and do rehab counseling,” she said.
January was a big month for Gina for more than one reason. In addition to returning to school, she also resumed teaching tumbling classes to youngsters in Wayne – Tumbling With Gina at Gary’s Tumbling, an offshoot of her dad’s gym in Glenwood.
She has approximately 30 students, ranging in age from 4 to 13.
“I was a little nervous at first, but it’s good,” Gina said. “It’s kind of like my therapy away from home. I’d rather be there than in class some days.”
One group of Gina’s tumbling students are known as the X-Treem Team. The group performs publicly at halftime of basketball games, parades and other events.
“It was hard to watch the girls tumble at the first halftime because I used to tumble with that team as well, but just being there, actually, it’s wonderful,” Gina said.
Members of the X-Treem Team assist Gina in the gym while she offers instruction to her students.
“I call them my legs. They do everything,” Gina said of her helpers. “I couldn’t do anything without those girls. They help tremendously.”
Gina coaches tumbling on Friday evenings and Saturdays. At times, she admits, coaching from a wheelchair is difficult. She yearns to be out on the mat with her students.
“It’s hard, for sure, because I love it,” Gina said, “but I’m so glad that I can at least be there and live it through the kids rather than not do it at all. It’s kind of bittersweet.”
If working on her degree and teaching tumbling isn’t enough, there’s also two days of early-morning physical therapy that requires Gina to return to Glenwood on a weekly basis.
Every Monday and Tuesday morning, Gina and her parents, Gary and Cheryl Giaffoglione, get up bright and early to make a two-hour trek to Guthrie Center where Gina trains on a unique bicycle designed to stimulate her muscles with the aid of electrical currents. The FES bike delivers tiny electrical jolts to muscles through the skin, stimulating the patient’s leg to push the pedals. Gina came across an article last summer about a man who had trained on the bicycle.
“He’s walking now with a walker after being paralyzed for seven years from the chest down,” she said.
After researching the bike, Gina decided she wanted to give it a try.
“We saw the article, so we couldn’t not do it and have the ‘what if’ hang over our heads forever,” Gina said. “My parents are awesome to be able to drive me back and forth every Monday and Tuesday morning. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’d fall asleep.”
Gina said she’s optimistic the early-morning drives will pay off.
“I don’t think we’ll be walking anytime soon, but you’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve seen some of my muscles contract while I’m on the bike. My right foot will move when I’m on the bike, but I’m not doing it. It’s just because the muscles are stimulating it to move,” Gina said. “I did get a little, itty-bitty feeling back on my belly. We’re hoping that’s from some stimulation. We’re hoping it’s going to all come together and give me more feeling.”
In addition to the FES bike, Gina also takes part in aquatic therapy and is beginning workouts at a PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) fitness center in Omaha, a completely handicapped-accessible workout facility with trainers who are also in wheelchairs.
A daunting schedule, to say the least, but don’t expect Gina to slow down anytime soon. As far as she’s concerned, her ride on the road to independence is just getting started.
“Yep, I’m busy, but it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s more out there I want to do.”