Mercy Grad Student Displays His ‘Wheels Of Progress’

By Brandon Chatkin

It was cold and dark. George Gallego navigated his way through the warehouse searching for the light switch. Unable to see anything, he took small steps, with outstretched hands, feeling for a wall. Suddenly, the ground gave way from under him and he began to fall into darkness.

He descended without knowing what was at the bottom, when it would come, or what would happen to him. Finally, he hit the hard cold concrete with a thud. He lay there motionless, waiting to be rescued, waiting to die – just waiting.

Today, Gallego, 43, is married, drives a jeep, and competes in triathlons. He graduated from Mercy College with his bachelor’s degree and has returned for the fall 2010 semester to pursue his masters in organizational leadership.

In addition, Gallego runs a non-profit organization called “Wheels of Progress”. His mission is to provide transition and permanent affordable housing for youths with spinal cord injuries.

This is the same devastating condition Gallego also shares.

It was 1992 when Gallego fell three stories onto the concrete. Nearly 48 hours had gone by when Gallego was found and rushed to the hospital.

“I don’t remember if I was conscious any time after the fall,” Gallego says. “I believe I drifted in and out.”

Gallego suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the waist down. He attended physical therapy sessions in an effort to maximize the use of his arms and learn to live a normal life while in a wheelchair. A very proud and resilient man, Gallego was determined not to let his disability take over his life. He set out to live a fuller life than he had with the use of his legs and started competing in triathlons.

Gallego is a very accomplished triathlete. He is a member of the 2010 USA Paratriathlon National Team and received first runner-up at the 2010 National Championship. He obtained a bronze medal in both the 2009 ITU paratriathlon world championship and the Accenture USA Paratriathlon National Championship. He placed second in 2007 and 2008 and first in Chicago in 2008 and 2009.

“I compete because I want others to know that becoming disabled may slow you down, but it doesn’t have to stop you,” says Gallego. “But this will be my last year competing. I want to dedicate more time to my non-profit organization.”

Gallego has lived to help people ever since his accident. He initially set out to help find a cure for spinal cord injuries. That is when he first enrolled at Mercy College, majoring in clinical lab science.

“I didn’t complete the program,” Gallego says. “It just did not work out.”

Today Gallego spends the majority of his time working with his non-profit organization “Wheels of Progress”. He is dedicated to finding housing for youths with spinal cord injuries.

According to Gallego, about 56,000 youths suffer from spinal cord injury. Seven percent of these victims are forced into nursing homes with very little family or government support.

“The government offers housing for people who are alcoholics and drug abusers. This is what they consider disabled,” Gallego says, as he talks about the lack of support for spinal cord victims.” The difference is those people are doing it to themselves. These kids had no control over their accident but have become prisoners in nursing homes.”

Gallego believes he can help.

He says a good start would be to offer transition homes- in the tri-state area- close to Mount Sinai Hospital. He believes it is the best location because Mount Sinai is one of the few hospitals in the area to treat patients with spinal cord injuries.

In addition to all Gallegos does to help victims of spinal cord injury to find homes, he also attends retreats for the disabled. These retreats aim to help empower the disabled to live more active lives.

Gallego hopes that his drive- to inspire people who share his condition- will take more than just a local affect. He continues to live his life with hope for tomorrow and gives life to those spinal cord victims who think it’s over.

“We have to keep hoping, and keep working.”