Although 23-year-old Nick Romano, an avid sports enthusiast, has always pushed himself to the limit, the last two and a half years have been more challenging than he could have ever imagined. On Dec. 21, 2016, the Richland Township resident fell from a chair lift at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, breaking his vertebrae. He was instantly paralyzed from the chest down. “It was a gorgeous day of skiing,” he recalls. “(I remember) running laps in the park and enjoying life with friends.
“I don’t remember much of anything whenever I fell off the lift, which probably isn’t a bad thing.” He underwent two major surgeries within 48 hours to decompress his spinal cord and realign his spine for recovery, spent Christmas in the ICU and attended rigorous inpatient rehabilitation for 30 days
Nick's parents, Joe and Kay Romano, and sister, Hillary, were at his side every step of the way.
“Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) are absolutely heart wrenching,” his sister says. “There's absolutely no other way to describe them.”
The family was told he would never walk again. “But even to this day we do not believe that is the case,” Hillary says.
Nick went home Jan. 25, 2017, and returned to school in the summer – only missing a semester. This spring, he graduated from UPJ with a mechanical engineering degree.
“Regardless of all that has happened, my brother's attitude and resilience through all of this has been nothing shirt of inspiring and a miracle,” Hillary says. “He has 'walked' with braces and a walker (using his upper body) and was giving the opportunity to walk in an exoskeleton suit that self-propelled his legs for him – which was all based on computers. He drove six months post injury with hand controls, which is pretty quick for an injury like this; snow skied on a mono ski 13 months post injury; and water skied on an adaptive ski a few months after that.”
Nick says being young and active played a major part in quickly regaining mobility. “I was involved in many different activities and still am today,” he says. “Sports that involve being outdoors is what I love the most and I still do all these sports to this day.
“The support of family and friends has really helped a lot and still being able to do the sports and activities I love the most with adaptive equipment has helped me get back to my adventurous self.”
Nick says many good things came from the accident. “As I and others in this similar situation like to say, it was both a blessing and a curse. A curse for the fact of possibly never walking again, but a blessing for the fact of how one’s life changes. I’ve been exposed to so many new people, places, activities and so on that I would have never experienced before. A lot of these experiences would have never been possible without the High Fives Foundation. They’re the ones who gave me the inspiration to get back out there and do what I love.”
The High Fives Foundation is a non-profit foundation that supports the dreams of outdoor action sports athletes by raising injury prevention awareness while providing resources and inspiration to those who have suffered life-altering injuries. “To date, this foundation was able to grant upwards of $3 million to injured athletes,” Hillary says. “This money made it possible for injured athletes to get adaptive equipment such as skis, bikes, and off-roading vehicles in order to continue doing the sports they love. It also provided some individuals with total home re-modifications and accessible features they didn’t have before.”
Last year, Nick and his family started PUSH FOREward, a golf outing, as a way to give back to the foundation that helped Nick. “Last year, we were about to donate over $36,000 and plan on at least doubling that donation this year,” Hillary says. “Adaptive equipment is costly beyond what anyone could imagine so being able to hold another successful fundraiser means the absolute world to Nick, myself and my family.
“Individuals with life-alternating injuries are some of the most determined, hard-working people I’ve ever met and deserve to be treated and respected as such,” she continues. “With this outing alone, I hope we’ve managed educate or at least sparked an interest into understanding spinal cord injuries and the amount of funding needed for living life along with the constant medical bills, treatments, therapies and so on.”
This year's outing will be held Sept. 21 at Windber Country Club. For additional information or to help sponsor the event, email firstname.lastname@example.org or log onto pushforeward.highfivesfoundation.org
Nick says he remains focused on moving forward. “For me, the most challenging part was the total change of perspective on life and what’s important,” he says. “People love to dwell in the past and over think it. It’s just something that happened and focusing on the future is what’s most important.