Out on the water, they’re just anglers.
While battling waves and some big fish, there is no talk of injuries or paralysis or other medical issues, or even the grueling but essential rehabilitative therapy.
This is their therapy.
Recipients of Tighten The Drag Foundation, a Lutz-based 501(c)3 nonprofit that helps better the quality of life for those with spinal cord injuries, get a fully-paid fishing weekend through the foundation’s annual fishing tournament in Safety Harbor.
But, it’s more. The foundation helps those that have come for assistance participate in adaptive sports and enjoy recreational activities. It also raises money that will help pay for that therapy, which, shockingly, is not covered by any insurance.
“A lot of people don’t know that,” the foundation’s lead volunteer, Sheila Tramontana, said. “A spinal cord injury, it’s like your thumbprint, in that every injury is specific to that person. … So, there’s not one special treatment. It’s a special treatment per patient because every injury affects everyone differently.
“So, insurance companies don’t cover therapy because, most likely, someone with a spinal cord injury won’t walk again. While this therapy is necessary and worthwhile, it’s deemed this way by insurance companies because you just don’t know what kind of recovery each person will have.
“And my family, and son, quickly realized this the hard way.”
Sheila’s son, Robert Tramontana, was paralyzed 10 years ago, suffering a spinal cord injury while out on Crystal River. Robert, now 40, was scalloping with friends and decided to dive into the water to cool off. Robert isn’t sure what he hit — possibly a manatee — but his head hit it first and he became one of the 17,500 people in this country who suffer a spinal cord injury every year.
As Robert spent 87 days in the hospital, Sheila soon found out insurance would not cover the rehab therapy. It would have to be paid out of pocket and those sessions can run up to or more than $100 an hour, and, most likely, the therapy’s location is not nearby. Meaning, transportation also factors into this uncovered cost.
“It blew my mind,” Sheila recalls. “Just how little resources there were for helping this kind of injury. There weren’t places to go, nor is there an advocate for someone in a hospital who is looking for help for paralysis.
“Every person has to deal with it themselves, but they need support, and we’ll help. If you need therapy, we’ll pay — just go. If we can help get them through the door, it’s up to them and we’ll help how we can.”
Tighten The Drag doesn’t try to solicit new recipients. Most of the time, it will be through word of mouth because now, 10 years later, Sheila and the foundation have been able to let it be known that they can help those who suffered spinal cord injuries.
There are only two requirements: the person must be a Florida resident and the paralysis was caused by an accident.
From there, the foundation supports its recipients, from getting them the fully paid fishing tournament excursion, to other supplies they might need, to doing something special for them on their birthday and other recreational outings.
Sheila says the foundation fronts about nearly $3,000 in the first month and that each person who participates in the fishing tournament can cost up to $2,200. This, of course, all comes from fundraising and donations, such as getting money from the Lutz Guv’na campaign, for example, or the GTE Federal Credit Union in Lutz, which is the fishing tournament’s title sponsor.
“Someone like me, my goal isn’t to walk again,” Land O’ Lakes native and foundation recipient Aaron Lopez said. “That would be nice and great, but $100 an hour is actually on the lower side and it needs to be cash money every week.”
Lopez suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident in 2014, but after nearly 10 years of therapy, this is built into his everyday life. He moves enough that the therapy, which the foundation helped him pay for, works in a seamless, but meaningful way.
“The tournament, and foundation, is fantastic,” Lopez added. “To get injured people back on the water, forget about all the wheelchair and injury stuff for a little bit, and just feel like a person again.
“Insurance … doesn’t cover rehab, and I understand because why pay for something if it doesn’t make you walk again — that’s just the black and white way to put it, but the foundation gets that.”
Even more, the foundation acts like a reunion. It gets anglers back together, as a group of not just paralyzed people, but people still trying to live their best lives.
“It’s sad to see that insurance doesn’t cover it,” said New Smyrna Beach resident and the foundation’s social media manager, Sam Scribner, who fell out of a hammock in a freak accident in 2016 and broke his C5 vertebrae. “People don’t have the money and suffer because they can’t afford it, while the therapy, obviously evidentially, does wonders.
“But the biggest thing people get out of the foundation is getting people with spinal cord injuries together and talking. They exchange the how to’s of figuring out how to live this life that no amount of Googling will get you. We share experiences. … And we get back out on the boat, with the wind on our faces, just forgetting about the everyday life of spinal cord injuries and wheelchairs. It’s feeling like a person again, and I hope others feel the same.”
Tighten The Drag Foundation
Details: A Lutz-based nonprofit foundation helping improve the quality of life for those that have suffered a spinal cord injury. The name comes from competitive tournament anglers using the term “tighten the drag” as a reference to bearing down on a fish to overpower, take control and be successful at achieving the goal of landing the fish. Each year, the foundation hosts a fishing tournament that fully pays for its 25 recipients that have come to the organization to get out on the water and fish. Funds raised through events provide scholarships for Florida residents with spinal cord injuries to attend activity-based exercise therapy rehabilitative and recovery programs either in home with a personal trainer or in licensed facilities, participate in adaptive sports and enjoy recreational activities.
For more information or to donate to the foundation, visit TightenTheDragFoundation.org.
Published December 28, 2022
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