The Unbreakable Hope of Gary PattiTuesday, May 31st, 2011
by Rich Fritzky
In 1957, when he was 2 weeks old, Gary Patti just started crying and crying and it was neither his diaper nor hunger. Distressed and worried and confused, his parents finally discovered that he had somehow broken his femur bone. Now today, child abuse might well have been suspected, but it was appropriately written off as a freak accident. Yet only two weeks later, the crying resumed and another broken bone was discovered.
Surely child abuse might then have been assumed. But the earnestness and the almost transparent despair of his parents kept everyone searching for the real answer. Other breaks followed and one sharp doctor isolated the problem. It was osteogenesis imperfecta, a extremely rare genetic disorder that negatively retards the body’s production of collagen, a natural protein that strengthens bones. Often referred to as ‘brittle bone disease’, it comes with a lifetime sentence, no cure and great pain attached. Fragile and brittle and twisted, its victims will forever be.
For Gary Patti, it would result in almost 100 major fractures before he reached the age of 12. Growth was impacted and there was nothing normal about a childhood that was spent in and out of hospitals, a childhood devoid of play or classrooms or formative friendships. Long tutored, his first placement in an actual school wasn’t until his junior year at Newark’s Arts High, where all other attendees went because they could sing or dance or play a mean piano. But Gary wound up there, only to be isolated again, because it was Newark’s only wheelchair accessible high school facility.
He encountered all the socialization issues impacting one who had for so long been isolated from what was normal and there too, he encountered the stark disparities and injustices that separated the able bodied from the disabled.
But Gary was blessed with what he calls “a resilient spirit” and a rare determination. And despite those stark differences and injustices, his inert outgoing nature, interest in people, and willingness to take risks ascended, all qualities that he believes his mother instilled in him. So he was drawn to wheel chair athletics and to the one college in the land that friends at the Division of Vocational Rehab and a visiting nurse told him best embraced those who were then referred to as handicapped, the University of Illinois.
To Illinois he went and blossomed in student government and in wheel chair athletics and in a performance, The Sideshow, which was a satirical look at people’s perceptions of the disabled. He excelled, in everything, in fact, except the classroom.
“In my youth, with a primary support system of church and family that was non-disabled, I found myself wanting to associate with people who used their feet and not with my fellow disabled,” Gary said. “In my fellow disabled, I saw too much passiveness and acceptance and resignation, while I rather longed for independence and achievement and success. So keen was I on this that I remember being repulsed when my Mom gave me a brochure for a Handicapped Summer Camp. Disabled as I may be, I wanted to be with the abled.”
“Of course, my perspective would mature, as I grew wiser and today, I am involved with so many disabled groups and efforts,” he added.
Back home at Rutgers, after his Dad’s open heart surgery in 1978, while preparing for the wheel chair nationals, he was introduced to a nautilus training facility that left him in pain for days.
“I was so impressed with the equipment that a friend and I did our due diligence, sought a $35,000 start up loan from the Small Business Administration’s handicapped assistance program, and opened a small 2500 square foot nautilus center in Cranford, a 2500 square feet that wasn’t even accessible,” added Gary.
Over the years, he faced many setbacks and challenges, but today his Medal Gold Fitness in Garwood, New Jersey and its 25,000 square feet is a great success. It is attached to an 8000 square feet athletic performance or speed center designed for young athletes looking to discover that winning edge. Today, his 73 employees, including a number of disabled, bear witness to his success and contributions. For a life full of setbacks and “punches in the gut” never dismayed him or cut him down.
“I have lived a life where a hard sneeze could break a bone and where a series of breaks in my adult life took me out of my game for two years. Recoveries have become increasingly difficult and I have been forced to ask myself if I can I go through this again far too many times,” he added.
Well, he did and he does as he always has. He lives and he lives large. He likes to say that no one ever fails, they just quit. And his message today and the thematic underpinning of his soon to be published biography, Unbreakable Hope, is to give what you are and not what you have. A frequent speaker at churches and schools, he points to his own life lived and to the hundreds of opportunities for him to quit.
“But,” he says, “you must never quit on yourselves, for in the heart of disability, there is always the strength of ability, be it head and heart and spirit alone. You must be relentless for yourself.”
At his performance center today, he holds free classes for young disabled children. Designed to get the most out of the physical abilities left to them, Gary is always taken by their wide eyes and look of surprise when they learn that he, in the wheelchair, is the owner, the owner of place dedicated to enabling.
The telltale, giveaway line of the martyred gay advocate, Harvey milk was “You gotta give them hope.” So too is it for our impassioned advocate for the disable and abled alike, Garry Patti — “You just gotta give them hope.” A hope that every single day of his life bears witness to!