Three years after a tree felling accident, one man doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”
Gabe Piselli is your quintessential outdoorsman. The 43-year-old father of two young, athletic boys grew up learning “the trades” in his family’s construction business in Delaware County, PA, a stone’s throw from Philadelphia. Piselli matriculated at Temple University, earning a B.S. degree in horticulture. Yet every chance he got, Piselli was outdoors. “I love being outdoors—I’ve been outside all my life. For instance, I’ve bow hunted in the most remote parts of the U.S.,” he says.
After college, Piselli rejoined the family construction business, bought a 100-acre timber stand in Northeast Pennsylvania, and, in March 2011, got married. One thing was sure: Piselli was always working and soon started his own construction firm. “My construction business was varied—from straight construction to concrete and asphalt and blacktop,” he says. “I’m a heavy equipment operator and worked trees as a climber and feller. “If you’re good,” says Piselli, rather modestly, “you’re always working.”
Fast forward to March 23, 2019. Piselli and his wife, Adrienne, have two little boys, ages three and five. His timber stand is flourishing, and it’s time to make a “timber stand improvement,” explains Piselli. “This is a process where a few buddies and I were eliminating trees that were of low monetary value or value to the wildlife,” explains Piselli. “I’ve cut thousands of trees in my life,” Piselli says quietly. “And one thing went wrong, and this tree crushed me.”
The tree fell on Piselli. It broke his spine and almost every rib and collapsed his lungs. Piselli never lost consciousness. “Immediately, I knew that I couldn’t move, and I thought I was laying in an odd position,” he said. As he lay there, he fretted over his rescue. Piselli’s mountain home is remote. “The road in is made for pick-up trucks and four-wheelers, not rescue vehicles and EMS,” were his thoughts. Fortunately, there was enough open land for a helicopter, and Piselli was life-flighted to Geisinger Hospital in Scranton, PA. Yet Geisinger wasn’t equipped to handle the severity of Piselli’s injury, and he was life-flighted again to Philadelphia’s Jefferson Hospital.
Piselli’s injury level is between T10-12, and he was told his spinal cord was severely crushed. He learned that his ASIA score–a measurement that gives patients an indication whether they will regain function–was ASIA A, stating “Grade A: Complete. No sensory or motor function is preserved” below the level of injury. He was told he would never walk again. “All that is inconsequential to me,” says Piselli. Piselli spent ten days in the ICU and then six weeks in Philadelphia’s Magee Rehabilitation. Then, according to Piselli, “They hand you a package (of papers) and say, ‘Good luck! Your outpatient therapy starts on this date!’” Piselli says the outpatient therapy was centered on activities of daily living (ADL). “I still had to wear a clamshell since my ribs were broken,” he explains.
Do Work, Son
He began networking with other spinal cord injury (SCI) athletes and found Project Walk in New Jersey, React Neuro Rehab in Dallas, and other activity-based rehabs. “I would attend these two days a week–sometimes three–for two hours a day,“ says Piselli. He also receives acupuncture from a medical doctor twice a week and cranial and sacral massage therapy twice a week. Piselli works with a trainer, Vito Russo, who was his trainer before his accident.
A year ago, Piselli was referred to the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. “I go there every other month for a week,” he says. Kennedy Krieger’s spinal cord center is an activity-based restorative therapy program with myriad modalities. And Piselli’s regimen is so focused and intense that he has been working on his recovery seven days a week–for three years. Piselli’s relentless efforts have paid off. Remember, he is classified as a T-10 complete paraplegic; he is not supposed to have any feeling or movement below the waist. And yet, almost three years later, he is moving his legs and taking steps with the aid of a walker and leg braces.
To what does Piselli attribute his improvement?“Oh, man,” he sighs, gathering his thoughts. “It’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual–it’s many facets.” Piselli draws on his experience from his construction days. “There are many days when I have to push my body and mind well past what they should be doing,” he says.
Piselli’s motivation is his family. “This has been tough on my family,” admits Piselli. “I have two young sons who are nine and seven now,” he says. “And it’s been hard on my wife. She had a hands-on husband who was mechanically inclined and took care of everything around the house, to a husband who couldn’t hang a picture on the wall .” “This injury has taken all that away, and it’s robbed me of my identity,” Piselli admits. His sons are playing baseball and ice hockey, and while Piselli says he doesn’t want to coach, he would like to be an assistant. “Yeah, I think that’s where I’ve had to suck it up the most,” Piselli admits.
The Money Pit
Financially, Piselli was in a decent place before his accident. “Insurance doesn’t cover nearly all of what I’m doing. I get 30 visits a year. Imagine where I’d be if I relied on 30 visits a year…” his voice trails off. In addition to paying out-of-pocket for all his different therapies, Piselli moved to a home better suited for his condition. And one room in that home is dedicated to his recovery. It has a therapy table, an FES stim bike, and other equipment that any SCI warrior would envy. Piselli is using his retirement funds to pay for everything, “But at some point, that will be gone, too. But I’ll add this,” he continues, “I feel blessed that until this point that financially I’m able to do this, ‘cause I know many people have to return to work, which makes it very difficult to put this kind of work in.”
Hope for the Future
Despite his challenges, Piselli finds joy in the everyday aspects of living. He enjoys going to the rink with his sons. A former ice hockey player, Piselli is proud his boys are playing for the same organization he played for as a youth, The Quakers. And his family has adopted a grey miniature dachshund. “She’s eight weeks old,” says Piselli, as the pup stirs in his lap.
He looks down and strokes her head. “We’ve named her Hope.” To follow Piselli’s progress, visit his Instagram account: GabePiselliHunt