« 31st MEU embarks for PHIBLEX ‘08 | Main | New San Diego facility cares for war's worst wounded; The Naval Medical Center upgrade includes expanded therapy for amputees. »

Marine keeps faith in spite of near paralysis; Physical therapy helps Lopez rebuild strength.

Surrounded by about 2,000 others on foot at today's Sunshine Run, Lance Cpl. Joe Lopez will get by with arm-power — and a set of wheels.

Please click on above link for photos.

Saturday, October 13, 2007
Cory de Vera

The 21-year-old Marine is using the race to prepare for a Marine-sponsored marathon Oct. 28 in Washington, D.C., and to rebuild his strength after near paralysis.

It was only a little more than a year ago that a smallpox vaccination left him helpless, unable even to breathe without a ventilator.

Doctors told his mother he likely wouldn't survive, but with physical therapy — now every other day at St. John's Hospital — his strength is coming back. With a cane, he's able to walk about the length of a football field, but for a trip to the mall he'll use a wheelchair. Daily medications keep his legs from trembling.

For races, his arms do the work, using a custom-built hand cycle provided by a nonprofit organization that offers support to members of the military and their families.

"My arms have returned — as far as I can tell — back to normal," Lopez said. "Most of my injury was below my arms, so I work on trying to build up abdominal and leg muscles."

Wednesday night was the first time Lopez completed the full 26.2-mile length of a marathon on his hand cycle.

"I really enjoy the hand cycle; it gives me the type of exercise I haven't been able to get for the last year," he said. "It feels good to have that kind of mobility."

His mother, Barbara Lopez, a secretary at Central High, will be a first-time participant in the Sunshine Run, too. Though she says she'll be walking while he dashes forward.

"I've never done anything like this, but when he started getting excited about the Marine Corps Marathon, I decided with all he's got going on, surely I can do this," Barbara Lopez said.

She said the farthest she's gone in her training is about four miles; the 10K she'll attempt today is a little more than six miles.

But she, too, is glad she started training and picking up a healthy habit.

"First, it was really hard to make myself get off the couch and start walking," she said. "It is so much easier to just come home, make dinner, watch TV. You've got to force yourself. Once you get in the habit, it feels so much better. Then, you want to get up and do it."

The Sunshine Run began 28 years ago as a way of getting workers at St. John's physically active, but eventually opened up to the wider community, said hospital spokeswoman Cora Scott. Today's event will draw participants for three different races: a 5K, a 10K and a one-mile race. Entry fees for the race benefit five different charities.

The deadline to register has passed, but spectators are welcome to enjoy entertainment, refreshments and shopping at the Wellness Village on the concourse of Hammons Field, East Trafficway and John Q. Hammons Parkway.

Scott said organizers are unsure if any people using wheelchairs have ever participated in the race; those she asked could not remember any.

"We certainly don't turn any participants away, but I don't think we've had much interest (from people who use wheelchairs). Maybe in the future we'll do a whole wheelchair division."

Barbara Lopez is just pleased to see her son's enthusiasm. When he had his rare reaction to the vaccine, doctors told her if he survived he would have brain damage. But he survived and has no brain damage. His reaction and his treatment are so rare doctors aren't sure how much progress he'll be able to make.

"I'm proud of him," Barbara Lopez said. "He could have given up a long time ago, but he chose not to."


Sunshine Run schedule of events

All races begin in front of Hammons Stadium at East Trafficway and John Q. Hammons Parkway and end at home plate in the stadium.

7:30 a.m.: 5K Race begins

7:45 a.m.: Official Starting Ceremony for 10K Race -- main stage in front of stadium

7:40-7:45 a.m. (approximately): First 5K finishers cross the finish line

8:15 a.m.: 1-mile race begins

8:20 a.m.: National Anthem to signal start of 10K Race on main stage in front of stadium

8:30 a.m.: 10K Race begins

8:40 - 8:50 a.m. (approximately): First 10K finishers cross the finish line

10:30 a.m.: Awards ceremonies inside the stadium
For the cause
Registrations from the Sunshine Run help support five local charities: St. John's Burn Center, the Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks, Springfield Catholic Schools, The Foundation for Springfield Public Schools and The Ronald McDonald House.

Spectators may make contributions at the event.

Lopez's cause

When Joe Lopez races in the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 28, he hopes to raise money for Purple Heart Family Support. To find out more about his efforts go to