A spinal cord injury left Bill Bodry paralyzed at the age of 27. Facing a lifetime of limitation, secondary medical complications and no affordable physical therapy alternatives, Bill created the Challenge Center. Bill’s mission became providing post-acute rehabilitation programs and services to children, adults and seniors living with severe disabilities. Since its beginning in 1987, Challenge Center has provided and continues to provide clinical post-acute rehabilitation as well as health education and promotion by skilled physical therapists to ensure they reach their goals.
ONE DAY IN OCTOBER
(The Story of How Challenge Center Came to Be)
My name is Bill Bodry and I have a spinal cord injury. There is no dramatic tale about skydiving or drunk drivers, but the effect on my life was dramatic nonetheless. I had terrible scoliosis as a young man and was referred to a doctor who was confident he could straighten my spine. Surgery was scheduled and one day in October, I walked into the hospital. The next day I lay in my hospital bed reeling from the news that the walk into the hospital was to be my last. Trauma from the surgery caused an injury to my spinal cord. Paralysis at T-12.
Life as I knew it had changed and I changed with it. Two years of depression, cigarettes, beer and TV. No phone calls, no visitors, no day light. Just sit and try not to think too much until one day it dawned on me that I was getting weaker by the day. I needed to get back in to physical therapy or soon I would be totally dependent on others for all my mobility: getting in and out of bed, my chair, or transferring to the shower. I was afraid that if I kept going this way, eventually I would no longer be able to lift myself for any reason.
I remember going back to the hospital. I was a bit embarrassed at the thought of showing up there again. When I was in Rehab, I was less than cooperative. My take on it was,” if my legs are what stopped working, why are we working on my arms”? The nurse and the social worker were waiting in the office. I started to explain that, while I realized I had not been much of a patient when I was there two years earlier, I had a change of heart. After thinking it over I had concluded that what I needed to do was to get to work on myself to gain the strength I would need to be as independent as I could be. And that was why I was there, to get back to the rehab. The silence was defining. Finally one of them spoke, “Bill, Your two years post injury, there is no rehab two years post injury! You’re not eligible for that now.” I will never forget the anger and indignation I felt. “Two years? and what does that make me now, disposable?” Feeling more than a little rejected I left to go back and think this over.
My indignation finally spurred me into action and I began to seek out programs where I was welcome. I was excited to find a “clinic” in Las Vegas that a mother of a spinal cord injured son had started. I thought the saints had smiled on me. The “clinic” had a rather crudely welded prototype of the bike I was looking for that could, with electrical muscle stimulation, make your own paralyzed legs peddle a stationary bike! This well-intended effort had all the bells and whistles of a rehab center and it’s founder should be commended for raising the money to house and equip it and keep it’s doors open. However, while I truly appreciated having this resource to go to, it missed the boat when it came to professional therapists to guide and assure the safety of the clients. My initial excitement soon turned to disillusionment as I witnessed clients being injured due to lack of any trained medical supervision or guidance. I left to find a “better” situation but history repeated itself at the next program where I again watched progress disrupted by preventable injuries. I felt my frustration pushing me towards starting my own facility that would not leave out a crucial part of a successful rehabilitation center- the trained licensed physical therapist.
A higher power must have agreed with me, because what followed was an unbelievable set of serendipitous circumstances; including accidentally bumping into key supporters in a sushi bar, meeting a crucial doctor at a cocktail party, and a personal introduction to a leading expert, Dr. Rene Caillette. When I met with these people I could hardly control my excitement; my heart was pounding. Could this be happening that these three people, who did not know me from Adam, could so precisely understand my project that they had bigger and better ideas than I did? At this point I had no doubt that this was important and indeed needed to be done! There were moments leading up to this point that I thought I may be just another angry person with a disability. But meeting these people and hearing their take on this plan of mine gave me the certainty that I was headed in the right direction.
Soon I was back in LA all packed up with the camping trailer hooked up to my “Caddy”. I was headed south to San Diego to open Challenge Center’s doors. My friends had a small office in an alley behind a barbershop they were willing to share. It was about 150 sq. ft., and had a restroom that didn’t have room to hold a wheelchair. You had transfer onto the toilet, then push your wheelchair back into the main room and close the door. It was a little embarrassing but in light of the task ahead, it was no big deal.
The phone was our best tool and we used it well. My phone voice was always a bit more official sounding then was really the case. And soon we were scheduled to speak at three local service clubs. The day before we were to speak it became apparent that none of us had ever given a talk in front of strangers. Somehow I was elected to do the talking. When the time came, you could have gotten a real good pulse on me in the center of my forehead. My heart pounded, my mouth went dry, and my palms wet, as I took the microphone. Eventually, I started with “My name is Bill Bodry and I have news about a need in this community that we hope to fill”. From there it was downhill and I never looked back. There was a genuine interest in what I was telling them and that talk was one of most empowering things I had ever experienced. It seems that the reason I had never thought of public speaking before was I didn’t have anything substantial to say. This CHALLENGE CENTER thing gave me something to say, something important to thousands upon thousands of people.
Fundraising was another new endeavor for us and we did not have a clue! We had all seen the people in front of K-Mart ask for contributions for other good causes and we figured that must be where we needed to be. When you look at the well-equipped, state of the art facility Challenge Center has today, it may be hard to believe the first steps towards having a physical Challenge Center literally started with devoted people sitting in front of K-Mart with donation buckets, and many late nights spent rolling coins. Bob Kaminsky, Bobby as he liked to be called, would soon join the Board and take us from the curb in front of K Mart into the board room. After he secured the first secured the first $29,000 donation for a new e-stim bike (late same bike that initially inspired my search for a continuing rehab facility), and several Physical Therapist committed to volunteering their time; we were off and running. There have been many fits and starts along the way, and more than our share of “challenges”, but 25 years later we find the way each year to support 3 full time Physical Therapists, and 4 specially trained Certified Personal Trainers, all devoted to my original vision and dream- that no one would feel disposable because of disability, that they too would have the opportunity to be the best and healthiest they could be; and then have the support and means to stay that way, regardless of what their insurance company decided was “medically necessary”.
The recent “Call to Action on Disability” by the Surgeon General and many other important government actions are pointing towards the issues facing us on long term care and health for seniors, and people living with disability. Each year we hope the country is getting to the point where the prevention agenda will be played out in all communities and what we have been doing at CHALLENGE CENTER will be available to all who need it.
My name is Bill Bodry and ‘one day in October’, over 25 years ago, I started the most meaningful journey of my life. After overcoming all the odds, the improbably product of that odyssey is currently housed in a little white building hidden in the back of Sunset Park in La Mesa. But don’t let the unassuming façade fool you. Inside that building lives the return of hope, the realization of dreams, and the means for a better quality of life for the thousands of people with disabilities who have found her doors in the last 25 years; and, God willing, many more years to come.