13-mile backstroke to Block Island to help victims of spinal cord injuries


Trent Theroux and Jim Langevin share a common bond. Both know the dangers of spinal cord injuries and the paralysis it can bring; both are working to help those who are paralyzed; and both believe there will be a means of repairing those injuries someday.

But there is also a big difference between the two men.

Langevin, the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, sustained his injury when he was a Warwick Police cadet at the age of 16. A revolver was accidentally discharged in the locker room and the round ricocheted off a metal locker and hit Langevin.

Ten years ago, Theroux was in Narragansett Bay kayaking when it was evident to him that a powerboat approaching from behind didn’t see him. He waved his paddle but the boat kept coming. He tried diving out of the way, but the boat’s propeller sliced into his back. The prop made four cuts, one taking a section of bone, but miraculously leaving the spinal cord untouched, although at first there was some question whether he would walk again.

On Sept. 8 at 6 a.m., 15 days shy of the 10th anniversary of the accident, Theroux will walk into Narragansett Bay at Point Judith, turn around and start a 13-mile backstroke that will end in New Harbor on Block Island; an estimated six and a half hours later. He will do the entire swim on his back, looking straight up and guided by a team of eight kayaks and a powerboat.

The swim, Theroux said Friday in Langevin’s Warwick office, is the last of 10 goals he set out to achieve in the days, months and years of recovering from his accident. The first of his goals was to walk again and others included returning to his job – he is director of finance with Thielsch Engineering in Cranston – and running a marathon. He and his family live in Barrington.

“The first nine,” he said of the goals, “were about me. This is for others.”

Dubbed “Back to Block,” Theroux aims to raise $50,000 for the Greater Boston Chapter of RISE Above Paralysis to aid victims of spinal cord injuries. So far, he has raised about $10,000. The money would be used for durable medical goods not covered by insurance for those with injuries. Speaking from experience, he said such an injury can have huge financial and emotional impacts for the victim and family, but there’s hope.

“Life only took a change, it didn’t end,” he said. The funds would be used to help people live with their injuries.

The numbers of spinal cord injuries is daunting. There are an estimated 1.7 million Americans who have been paralyzed. Most are young and sustained their injury in some sort of accident. And, as Langevin noted, there’s the group who were injured in battle.

Langevin believes there will be a cure in his lifetime. In fact, he actually thought it would have been discovered by now. He is especially encouraged by two ongoing projects: one using stem cells to regenerate cells, the other aimed at electrically activating nerves that has shown promise in Great Britain.

“There’s more hope now than ever before for a cure,” Langevin said. He thinks multiple approaches – disciplines – will lead to a cure.

But it’s going to take research and money and, on this score, Langevin is doing his own backstroke. He offered an amendment to the 2013 Defense Appropriations Act to add $15 million to the department’s spinal cord injury research program, for a total allocation of $30 million. This would come close to what the program was funded in 2009 but has been reduced in subsequent years.

“I’m an optimist,” said Langevin. “I was told I would never walk again.”

Theroux is training for his swim. His wife, Jennifer, has been out there with him. As Trent will be looking straight up, guiding him is especially challenging. Hand signals don’t work and whistles are less than perfect. Companion swimmers are among the best, but even that presents problems, especially offshore, and when Block Island will be obscured by waves.

But Jennifer won’t be out on the water on Sept. 8. She and other members of the family will be waiting it out on the island.

“Personally, I don’t want to see him in any pain,” she said of her decision to wait for his arrival. But there’s no question the family has been part of the team.

Theroux gained some unexpected and welcome support from the URI School of Oceanography. Aware of the strong currents at the north end of the island and the possibility of being swept onto the reef, the Therouxs asked for guidance. The school went a step further, calculating not only the best course and time for the swim, but also recommending Sept. 8 as the most favorable date. If conditions are consistent for this time of year, the 6 a.m. start will give Theroux time to clear the north reef before the southwest wind fills in. He is also hoping for calm seas, noting that swells make swimming difficult but chop would be even worse.

He has set up a website – www.backtobloc.org – to help the cause. Donations can be made online. He suggests for the right price – he tells Langevin a $1,000 donation would work – the team following him will toss chum into the waters. Theroux laughs, saying he’ll even endure sharks to ensure that funds are raised.

Langevin didn’t offer to bring on the sharks, but he promised to be at Block Island for the finish.

And would Langevin attempt the swim to Block if, as he believes, there is a cure for his paralysis? He paused to dream about that a moment before responding that his choice would be to enter a road race.


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