By Don Trello
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Veteran Wharton girls track and field and cross country coach Wes Newton faced the biggest challenge of his life as he laid in a hospital bed eight months ago wondering if he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life.
Newton, 65, suffered a severe spinal cord injury after falling 12 feet off a ladder while cutting tree branches with a chain saw on his land in Brooksville.
“My wife (Laura) found me and called 911, and they drove me to Tampa General Hospital where I wanted to go,” Newton said. “It took two hours from the time I fell and was found for everything.”
Seven days passed before doctors were able to operate on Newton to repair the damage to his spinal cord.
“I had a heart attack in 2008 after a 3-mile run and had a stint put in and was taking blood thinner medication,” Newton said. “My blood had to thicken up before they could operate.”
The operation was a success as doctors replaced a damaged vertebra with a cage-like device, but Newton was unsure of what faced him.
“I laid there for two weeks, and it was very hard; I was worrying,” Newton said. “The spinal cord unit is set up in small cubicles, and there was a guy next to me who fell off a roof and landed on his head and was paralyzed from the neck down. … They give you a Christopher Reeve book, and I thought this was going to be me. I thought I’d rather be dead.”
Reeve was the Superman actor who became quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse in 1995. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair on a breathing device before he died in 2004.
“But I said to myself, I’m tough enough to make it out of here,” Newton added. “The mental aspect has a lot to do with it.”
Newton was moved to the rehabilitation unit where he began the process of regaining strength and use of his body. He completed rehabilitation quickly and was released from the hospital 25 days after surgery.
“I was determined I was going to recover,” he said. “If they asked me to do five of something I would do 15. There were times when I was frustrated, but I made steady progress.”
Newton completed rehabilitation at home following a strict routine that included four hours of exercise seven days a week.
“I could have never, ever, ever done what I did without my wife,” Newton said. “She took care of me, but she didn’t give me any slack. She’s been a tremendous person for me.”
Newton’s successful recovery culminated with the resumption his teaching and coaching duties at Wharton.
“I took a medical leave for a half a year and was supposed to return January 22 of this year,” said Newton, who teaches chemistry honors classes, “but the neurologist cleared me to return, and I was back after nine weeks.
“It was a happy day, but the first week I was beat,” Newton added. “I slowly regained my stamina, and if I had to rate myself I’m probably 90 to 95 percent of where I should be. There isn’t anything I can’t do now that I could do before the accident.”
Wharton senior hurdler and sprinter Mikayla Barber feels Newton’s return to the track has been inspirational to her and her teammates.
“It’s very motivating when I see coach back after the accident,” Barber said. “You don’t let anything knock you down.”
Newton’s injury occurred when he was clearing low hanging branches on an oak tree so lumber could be delivered for a cabin he is building on his property.
“I always wanted to build a log cabin, and we decided to build it,” Newton said. “We will probably move into it in the next three weeks.”
Newton plans to continue teaching and coaching for at least the foreseeable future.
“They keep turning on the hose and sucking you back in,” Newton said about his decision to continue working. “Wharton will be getting a synthetic track soon and that keeps me in the track arena. It’s difficult to retire when you coach because every year somebody who will be good shows up. The longer you do it, the harder it is to step away from it.”