SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - Eric LeGrand, former Rutgers football star, vowed to return to the football field one last time when he spoke about his injury and his journey to walk again on Monday at Seton Hall University.
“And when I do rise from this chair, I will go back out to that field, right where I got hurt, and I’m going to get right back into that position, and get low-and I’m going to walk off that field and say, ‘I finished that play,’” LeGrand said.
Dr. Brian B. Shulman, dean of the School of Health and Medical Sciences, showed a short video about that day on the field, on Oct. 16, 2010, when LeGrand suffered the high-level spinal injury that paralyzed him in a game against Navy at MetLife Stadium.
Sandra “Buffy” Wojciehowski, a 2007 graduate of Seton Hall University, asked LeGrand about his first days at the hospital. LeGrand said he recalled everything that happened that day from the second he went down on the play to what he experienced throughout the first five days of being in the hospital.
“I couldn’t breathe, I kept gasping for air and I thought that was the end, that God was going to take me away now,” LeGrand said of the minutes after his injury. Paramedics and trainers got him onto the stretcher and into the ambulance in seven minutes.
At the hospital, LeGrand went into emergency surgery and then was put on a ventilator. He remained at Hackensack Hospital ICU from Oct. 16 to Nov. 3.
During the five weeks after his injury, Eric was slowly weaned off the ventilator and is now able to breathe by himself. On Nov. 3 he moved to Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange. His first night there he watched his team play South Florida, but by the end of the night something was not right.
“I needed to move a lot, I just couldn’t relax,” LeGrand said. Around midnight he fell asleep, and when he woke up he was on a stretcher headed to the hospital with a 105.5 degree fever that could have damaged his brain. Once the fever went down, Eric remembered asking his sister, “Can we go to I-Hop for breakfast? I’m hungry.”
On Nov. 8 he started his physical therapy at Kessler Rehabilitation Center with therapists including Wojciehowski and occupational therapy with therapists including Gabriella Stiefbold, who talked about LeGrand’s electric stimulation therapy.
“The electric stimulation therapy, which is used to help with muscles, is a part of an experimental pilot program Eric is enrolled in with three other people,” Stiefbold explained. In addition, LeGrand spent an hour and a half in physical therapy sessions and an hour and a half in occupational therapy sessions five times a week. He has completed more than 300 sessions since his injury. But his journey is not over.
Today, LeGrand is in the outpatient program at Kessler and working toward his goal of walking back onto the field with his teammates. He said he is working hard every day at therapy, sitting up on a couch by himself and walking on the specialized treadmill with the help of his therapy team.
Saturday, the Rutgers team retired the No. 52 jersey, which has not happened in over 144 years, in honor of LeGrand. In an interview after his speech, LeGrand discussed his NFL career with the Buccaneers, which came about in May 2012. He was brought onto the team as a staff member and was told by the coach that he wished all of his players could have the spirit that LeGrand had. LeGrand said, “It was a dream come true to have an NFL contract with Tampa Bay.”
LeGrand has adapted in his everyday life. His new house is equipped with an air mattress bed that rotates him to a certain degree during the night so he does not develop bed sores. He also has a type of harness that his mother uses to transport him when his football friends are not there to “put him over their shoulder,” as LeGrand put it. He taught himself how to operate his chair with a joystick controlled by his chin/mouth and learned how to control his blood pressure so it would not rise when he stood up during therapy.
LeGrand founded Team LeGrand, which is partnered with the Dana and Christopher Reeve foundation for those 1.5 million people in the world with paralysis. This foundation is designed to raise money so that more people can have chairs like LeGrand’s, which he calls the “BMW of wheelchairs” and help find a cure one day for this injury.
To join Team LeGrand, there is a $52 donation and member benefits include an Eric LeGrand T-shirt and bracelet, updates on how LeGrand is doing and invitations to special events. To join, go to www.teamlegrand.org/join.
The reporter is a student participating in hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.