The Fall and Rise of Tom Pitsenberger
When an accident left him partially paralyzed, the Bethesda father of 12 had a choice: He could give up on his goals-or he could make it a defining moment in his life
Tom Pitsenberger was halfway up the hill at the Iwo Jima Memorial, the notoriously steep final quarter-mile of the Marine Corps Marathon, when the recumbent bike he’d hand-cycled for 26 miles came to a dead halt.
Pitsenberger looked at his front wheel and saw the culprit: His shoelace was caught in the sprocket.
It was the latest in a series of race-day setbacks for the Bethesda man, a father of 12 who had been left paralyzed from the waist down after a 30-foot fall two years earlier. Parking problems had nearly caused him to miss the start of the race on this October day in 2011. He’d been having trouble with his gears throughout the event. And five miles earlier his right rear tire had gone flat. Now, yards from the finish line, he’d been stopped by a flimsy shoelace.
The thousands of cheering spectators lining the hill and the finish line beyond it roared, encouraging Pitsenberger to keep going, thinking he had run out of energy. Meanwhile, a group of Marines ran toward the recumbent bike, ready to cut Pitsenberger’s shoelace to enable him to move forward again.
As he sat there, myriad thoughts flashed through Pitsenberger’s mind. He thought about how far he’d come since beginning physical therapy months earlier. He thought about his daughter Danielle and his oldest son, Aaron, who were waiting at the finish line. He thought about how he’d first decided to finish this marathon more than two years earlier, back when his body was whole. And when the Marines gave him a push to help him regain his momentum, he started cranking the wheels again.
Before September 2009, Tom Pitsenberger’s contracting company, Deanwood Decks, kept him busy working long hours outdoors, and tied him up on the phone or at the computer when he was at home in Bethesda.
That left little time to relax with his 11 kids, who ranged in age from 4 to 21 at the time, or his wife, Marguerite, who was pregnant with their 12th child.
It also left little time to train for the Marine Corps Marathon, which had become one of Pitsenberger’s goals earlier that year. A lifelong athlete who played football and rugby at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, he’d been running steadily for months in hopes of eventually training seriously for the marathon.
All that changed on Sept. 23, 2009. It was a Wednesday, and Pitsenberger was working alone, 30 feet up a tree on a job in Bethesda, doing what he describes as routine work cutting down limbs.
He doesn’t remember how the fall happened, but the best he can figure, he blacked out. He came to on the ground, unable to move. A co-worker arrived several minutes later and called 911. Pitsenberger was flown by helicopter to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. He was conscious for the entire ride and doesn’t remember feeling fear.
At Shock Trauma, Pitsenberger’s wife was in a state of shock as doctors explained that her husband had severely injured his spine. Doctors would operate twice in the first couple days to try to repair the damage. They would know more in the days and weeks to follow, they said, but Pitsenberger would likely be at least partially paralyzed.
“Once the shock wore off, I thought: Will he be able to work? Are we going to have to sell the house?” Marguerite says. “You’re so grateful he’s alive, but you realize your life is changing forever.”
For Pitsenberger, his time in Shock Trauma was a heavily medicated blur. Doctors were constantly testing the sensation and movement in various parts of his legs, and finding that he could only move his right thigh. Pitsenberger didn’t connect that information with the idea that he might be paralyzed for the rest of his life. It wasn’t until he arrived at Adventist Rehabilitation Hospital of Maryland in Rockville on Oct. 6 that the implications of his injury started to sink in.
Dr. Terrence Sheehan, chief medical officer of Adventist Rehabilitation Hospital, told Pitsenberger that his L-1 vertebra had sustained a “burst fracture,” with the bone crushed in all directions, as opposed to a compression fracture, in which the vertebra is crushed only in the front part of the spine. The former is considered much more severe, as bone fragments can shatter into surrounding tissue or the spinal canal itself. Pitsenberger also sustained several other fractures in the lumbar section of his spine, Sheehan says.
Sheehan told Pitsenberger that the partial feeling on top of his right leg left hope that he could recover some motor function.
But in the beginning, just sitting up in a chair for a few minutes was exhausting. And trying to dress himself, one of his earliest therapy tasks, was brutally frustrating. “I said, ‘This is impossible,’ ” Pitsenberger recalls. “I just didn’t see how I could ever learn to do it.”
Ten days after he was admitted to Adventist, Marguerite went into labor with their 12th child.
When Pitsenberger finally saw his infant daughter, Anna, he was struck by the realization that life could and would go on. The thought had been percolating in his mind ever since he first woke to find his sons at his bedside: that the accident would bring him closer to his family, that perhaps it was meant to happen for that reason.
“I realized that I had survived, that my life was to continue for the good of my children,” Pitsenberger says. “And I realized that by going full-speed, nonstop, to provide for my children, I hadn’t really been providing for them in the way they really needed me. For lack of a better word, it was like a baptism. A miracle in reverse.”