My name is Zac Wolfe. Growing up I was a typical boy, I loved anything that had to do with the outdoors. I grew up in a small town in PA, the type of town that everyone knew each other. I had a close-knit group of friends that had all the same hobbies as me. On a typical day when we weren’t in school, you could find us on our bicycles, riding our ATV’s, or just hanging out at one of our houses. Life was simple back then, not a care in the world except who’s house we were going to venture to.
Throughout my elementary and high school years I was a member of the wrestling team, this sport is what shaped me into who I am today. School was not my favorite, but I never missed a day, my parents pushed me to be the best version of myself and wanted to see me succeed in all aspects of my life. You could say that my parents were strict, but a “good” strict and taught me right from wrong.
Parents- I want to take a moment and STRESS a very critical point. My parents raised me right and did everything that they could have possibly done to protect me and lead me on the right path in life. I am here to tell you that teens have a mind of their own and will do whatever THEY feel is right. In a sense we feel untouchable during our teenage years.
Back to the story-- I graduated high school in 2010 and attended Clarion University as a computer science major. I was still unsure if college was for me, I believe at 18/19 years old we are still trying to figure out “who we truly are” and college is a BIG step! I completed my first two semesters which then brought us to summer break! I was ready to get back to my hometown to work and hang out with my friends.
Every year over the 4th of July weekend my friends and I would go on a weekend long camping trip in the middle of the woods. This was a time that all of us looked forward to, a time away from reality to cook and party for the weekend. July 3rd 2011 was a day that I will never forget. We started playing some games and drinking and soon found out that we were running pretty low on alcohol. I know what you are thinking, “He was only 19, he shouldn’t even be drinking”. As teens we like to think that we are “cool” and think that rules don’t apply to us (I know some of you reading this can relate). We partied until about 2 o’clock then myself and two buddies decided that we needed to run to town. My buddy drove his single cab Dodge pickup truck, I sat in the middle seat. We were coming around a sharp curve in the road about a half mile from town when the driver overcompensated and lost control of the truck causing it to strike an embankment and roll over onto its roof. I remember seeing the absolute brightest white light, almost as if I was staring into the sun, then the next thing I knew I was waking up face down in the middle of the road with a friend (that had heard the crash from his house up the road and ran down) next to me saying “hold on Zac the ambulance is coming, stay with me”. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t feel any of my limbs, I remember saying “Wow, I really screwed up this time”. I kept going in and out of consciousness, with no idea what was wrong, I was full of blood from a gash the whole length of my arm from glass shards.
I was transferred to the nearest hospital, where I was then life flighted to the nearest trauma center. Severe whiplash- the doctors said I had sustained a C5-C6 spinal cord injury and they would have to perform surgery to stabilize my neck/area of injury. Prior to this accident I never had surgery before. However, I have been life lighted 2 other times (sorry Mom). Once for a fractured skull at 8 months old and then again at the age of 12 from wrecking my dirt bike and rupturing my spleen. So, I had frequent flyer miles I had to use up. LOL. I thought once the surgery was complete, I would be back to normal in a few days. Boy, I was very wrong. I had no idea what a spinal cord injury was, nor did I know the long road that I had ahead of me. I was in ICU for 7 days, then I was transferred to an inpatient facility in Pittsburgh PA, about 2.5 hours from my hometown. I still feel like my entire hospitalization is a blur and its hard to describe my feelings as I think I almost blocked that week of my life out of my mind.
When I got to the inpatient facility, this is where I really found out the extent of my injuries. I could not sit up on my own, roll from side to side in bed on my own, shower, brush my teeth, get dressed, I literally could not do anything on my own. 19 years old and I needed the nurses or my parents to dress me, shower me, and do pretty much everything else for me- that was absolutely devastating because I am the type of kid who never asks for help and now, I couldn’t do anything for myself. I started therapy the day after I was transferred to the facility and had to do therapy from my room in bed because I was unable to move too much or I would black out due to blood pressure issues. This is common with this type of injury. After a few days the nurses finally got me to attend therapy in their designated locations throughout the building. I attended Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Hand Therapy. At that time, I still had no hand, arm, or leg movement and had to be pushed around in a wheelchair. I had to be strapped into the chair, due to my core instability (I was like a bobble head and could not hold myself upright).
The first week or so of therapy, I was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on, I believe I was still in shock. But then, the depression started to set in. I hit rock bottom. I would lash out at my parents for no reason and I was just pissed off at the world. My parents took the brunt of my anger, but stuck with me every single step of the way. My parents went through absolute hell, I can’t even imagine watching my kid go through such a life changing accident. Not to mention, the financial burden on them. My mother, father, sister and grandparents were with me every day that they could be when I was in inpatient rehab and even when I transferred to outpatient. My father had to work to lessen the financial burden and to get a contractor in our house to convert our attached garage into a handicap apartment for me when I came home. Every day my father had off he was there to relieve my mom so that she could run home and try to get things done around the house. This is something that I will never be able to thank them for. Their lives stopped for two full years and all the focus was on me. My sister’s life completely changed for those two years as well. This injury did not only affect me, it affected my entire family. Sacrifices were made that I will never be able to repay them for. This was one of my big motivators as well.
It was the 3rd week of therapy on Wednesday I was at my absolute lowest I have ever been in my life. I just wanted to give up. I was laying in my bed after Physical Therapy and I was crying, saying “why me, why did this happen to me, what did I do to deserve this!”. That very night I woke up out of a dead sleep and I said to myself “Zac, you are the only person that can better this situation, no one else can help you. Its time to get to work”. It felt as if a weight was just lifted off my shoulders. From that day forward I gave every single day at therapy my all, I NEVER missed a day of therapy and always did extra if it was given. My parents and grandparents would work with me on my off time, we were determined to beat the odds.
I had a HUGE support group- my friends were there every chance that they had and my wife was by my side from day one as well. We were not dating during the time of my accident, but were friends and she was secretly in love with me. LOL. She helped me through some of the toughest times and was always there for me to lean on when I had bad days.
I was in the inpatient facility for 2 months; from there I was transferred to an outpatient facility that was 15 minutes from my hometown. I was super nervous to come back to our small town for therapy because the facility never worked with a spinal cord patient before. I quickly found out that the team at Penn Highlands Elk was more than ready for me. They researched on their own time and discovered workouts that challenged me to get to the next step. Each week we set goals and each week I crushed those goals! When a therapist can see the patients drive, they in return feed off of your energy and go that extra step. I was in out patient rehab for 2.5 years and my MAIN goal was to walk in braces, something doctors said to be impossible. The therapists knew this goal and knew that we were going to reach it one way or another. We began standing in the standing frame daily, I started out only being able to tolerate 5 minutes I would start to get dizzy. I kept getting denied by insurance to get KAFO (knee-ankle-foot orthotic) braces, because it was not practical for a high-level injury like myself to use this type of brace. My Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist brainstormed and came up with an idea. They got a pair of knee immobilizer braces and some ace bandages to keep my toes pointed up and we started working on standing/trying to take a step. It was pretty much impossible to take a step let alone to stand with braces and a walker. I had 4 therapists working with me at once, one on each side to move my leg forward, one supporting my core, and one moving the walker forward. BUT THEY DID NOT GIVE UP ON ME AND I WAS NOT GIVING UP ON THEM! We did this every single day, along with hours of other work outs. After months of work, I was finally able to swing my legs through to take a few steps (my knees were locked out, I was able to activate my hip flexors to swing my legs through). I was the approved by insurance to get KAFO braces! When I got these braces, they had a back support on them to help stabilize my core. This back support did help tremendously with walking, but I was not working my core at all. 6 months later, the back support was gone and we had new goals to reach!
I will never say that days were easy, hell days still aren’t easy, but I learned that if you truly want to reach a goal… You must put in the work! I wanted so badly for things to happen overnight, but that did not happen and this was very hard for me to get through mentally. The main question I get all the time is “How do you do it?”, “How did you do it?”. Here is my answer…. How do I do it? I have no other choice, sure I can lay around and feel sorry for myself, but where does that get me? When I tell people that I live my life like a game, they look at me like I am crazy. I have always loved challenges, this challenge that was thrown at me was one I never thought I could figure a way out of. I set weekly, monthly, and yearly goals, this was something for me to look forward to and something to work towards. I used to lay in bed at night (I still do) and envision what I wanted to do, I would actually feel it in and watch myself do it. For example, last month I was never able to stand up with my braces from my wheelchair on my own. I laid in bed for weeks thinking and feeling how I would do it. I actually saw myself do it. Guess what I did it a few weeks ago.
How did I do it? Again, I had no other choice, but I do give my thanks to wrestling for the discipline that the sport gave me. Did I want to give up? Did I cry? Did I hate the world? YES!! I struggled so bad, “why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?”. I realized that I may never know the WHY and that’s ok. I do know one thing; this injury will not define me. I will do everything I put my mind to and nothing will stop me.
Like I stated above, my support system was absolutely amazing. My friends never left my side, everything they did I did, nothing was too hard or an inconvenience for them. They never once looked at me or treated me different. To them I was the same old Zac, just on wheels and needed a little assistance to get into their lifted trucks.
My wife, the girl that came into my life when I was at rock bottom. She pushed me beyond measure to better myself. I wanted to better myself for her... She is to thank for me becoming so independent, if I still lived with my parents, I would have gotten lazy and took things for granted. My mom used to help me with everything, she hated to see me struggle. So does my wife, but she knows and I know that out of struggle comes success! She made me realize that the only barrier is my mind, once I get my mind right and focus on my goal. Nothing can stop me. Together we have traveled all over the country and have done more things than most abled bodied people.
I currently work a full-time job in the Quality department at a powdered metal facility. I have been with the company for 6 years now. This also helped tremendously with my recovery, the job challenged me with my independence, thus making me a stronger person. I never miss a day of work; I take my job very seriously. The company will never understand how much they have helped me with my self-image. I also help out an offroad shop on the side, I do all of the social media and video editing for them. I have a huge passion for off-roading and the outdoors- this is what sparked my idea to start my own company called Adaptive Outdoorz to help others see all the adaptive equipment that is to offer for individuals with disabilities to stay active. In my free time, I love to handcycle, go for Jeep rides, and ride our UTV.
What I want people to take from my story is, Life is downright tough at times, you feel like you will never get past a tragedy. I am living proof; I was told that I would need 24-hour care and would be confined to a power wheelchair. You know what? If I would have taken those words to heart, I probably would be in that situation. Doctors know the medical side of things; they don’t know what type HEART a person has. You can do anything you put your mind to, I promise you that. It may not be easy and you may need a little assistance doing that task, but it can be done. Live your life to the fullest and never back down for a challenge! My journey is far from over!