When Mark Tupa was admitted to MetroHealth Medical Center in 2003, paralyzed after colliding head-to-head with the opposing team’s running back in a football game, the St. Ignatius freshman landed in the care of a physician who took his injury personally.
Dr. Greg Nemunaitis, director of spinal cord injury rehabilitation at MetroHealth, recalled his own college sports career as captain of the 1978 Case Western Reserve University football team — a season that ended with surgery on his torn knee ligaments.
“Mark is a hard-working, bright kid that got in a bad spot that changed his life,” Nemunaitis says.
Tupa was admitted to the emergency room with only flickers of movement in his arms. “It almost felt like when your limbs go to sleep; that’s how it felt all over my body,” Tupa says. “I didn’t realize how serious the injury was. I got hurt Sept. 11, and I thought I’d still be able to go to homecoming.”
Tupa spent the next month in MetroHealth’s pediatric intensive care unit. His parents took turns sleeping there during his entire stay that fall. He had suffered an incomplete injury, meaning there was hope for recovery — though no one was sure whether he would walk.
Nemunaitis was there from the start. “He never made any promises,” Tupa says. “He said, ‘You can work hard — you have a chance to get better. It’s up to you.’ I saw this injury as my new competition.”
Tupa started therapy — every weekday for three hours — during his second month at MetroHealth. At first, he couldn’t even sit up in bed without passing out. He was put on a table that gradually raised him 5 degrees at a time to a sitting position.
Functional Electrical Stimulation retrained his muscles to contract, similar to the way a pacemaker sends an electrical shock to the heart. Four therapists would move Tupa’s legs as he walked on a treadmill equipped with a bungeelike body holster, so he could practice his form without bearing the stress of his own body weight.
Tupa’s milestones included the slightest muscle contraction, then simply standing, and eventually walking along parallel bars, his ankles braced so he wouldn’t wobble.
“He did therapy like he was training for a football game,” Nemunaitis says, “go, go, go.”
Tupa was released in December 2003 after three months. He was tutored at home in Cleveland Heights, and returned to St. Ignatius for his sophomore year with a walker. He continued therapy and his visits with Dr. Nemunaitis.
“I treat my patients like family,” offers Nemunaitis. “It’s my nature.”
Today, Tupa walks independently. A freshman business major at the University of Notre Dame, he still walks with a limp, but he wants that gone, too.
“I know what it was like to not be able to do anything,” he says. “Now, I’m thankful for what I got back.”