New Haven Register

Amputee aims high with marathon run as goal

Sunday, November 1, 2009
By Brian McCready, Milford Bureau Chief
MILFORD — John Tartaglio Jr. is not your typical motivational speaker.

He’s not bombastic, and he does not promise things he cannot deliver. Tartaglio, 22, doesn’t need a gimmick to get across his point: There is no obstacle in life that can’t be overcome.

All he has to do is roll his wheelchair onto the stage and start talking about what happened to him.

He was a normal 17-year-old Joseph A. Foran High School junior in summer 2004 when he inexplicably contracted a disease so rare it’s only been documented 35 times. It caused him to lose both legs and his left bicep.

After months of grueling rehabilitation, Tartaglio returned to school, and his story went national as Oprah Winfrey arranged for Derek Jeter to surprise Tartaglio at Foran, and he was flown in Donald Trump’s helicopter to meet the Yankees in New York. Tartaglio and his family were featured on Oprah’s show.

Now, after graduating from Fairfield University this summer with a pre-med degree, Tartaglio is a motivational speaker. Last week, Tartaglio spoke to about 75 students and faculty at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. At the end of his hour-long presentation, he received a thunderous standing ovation.

“Here’s a man who cannot spell the word surrender, and John is my new personal hero,” said Kirk Wesley, a Housatonic student who helped arrange Tartaglio’s visit.

Afterward, Tartaglio received the rock star treatment as a line of students formed seeking to share a word of encouragement, shake his hand, or in one case, plant a kiss on the cheek.

“Thank you. You’re an inspiration,” Gina Corella, 26, of Bridgeport told Tartaglio. “You’ve touched many lives.”

Other students were dumbfounded that Tartaglio has accomplished so much, despite losing so much.

“I know I’ve come really far,” Tartaglio said. “I’m not one to pat myself on the back. I know I’ve come really far.”

Tartaglio plans to make history today as the first amputee missing his femur and thighbone to run the entire 26.2-mile New York City marathon.

“No one else is dumb enough to do it,” Tartaglio told students.

Sharing his story did not come naturally. He struggled at first, but has embraced public speaking, saying it’s worth it if “I can affect just one person.”

Tartaglio’s father, John Sr., said he and his wife, Barbara, are “so proud” of their son.

“We can’t believe how far he’s come,” Tartaglio Sr. said. “We’re totally blown away. It’s been a whirlwind from a huge negative to a huge positive.”

He said his son is committed to helping others in need. “His attitude is, don’t feel sorry for me because I have better things ahead,” Tartaglio Sr. said. “Every person I speak to, they tell me this kid has a heart of stone. Nothing gets him depressed. He never gets down.”

Tartaglio said he never got too down because he was too focused on living his life.

“You can’t do anything about it so shut up and go do it,” Tartaglio said.

The Story begins

Tartaglio said there was nothing special about his story until summer 2004.

“I was perfectly healthy, playing sports, football and baseball,” Tartaglio said.

On Aug. 22, 2004, Tartaglio awoke with unbearable pain in his legs. He recalled trying to make the 15-foot trip to the bathroom, but it was too painful, and he was taken to the hospital.

At the hospital, his left arm began to turn purple. He recalled waking up the next day and seeing his family by his bedside, crying.

“I felt ‘I’m going to die today,’” Tartaglio recalled thinking. Doctors told him he was suffering from a rare bacterial infection and his chance of survival was 25 percent. It has never been determined how he caught the infection.

He was taken to another hospital by helicopter, and when he awoke, his legs and left bicep were gone.

“I woke up and I was like, how am I going to be able to live like any other high school kid?” Tartaglio said. “I knew I needed to be strong for my family.”

The doctor told him he’d never walk again.

“I didn’t want to hear that,” a smiling Tartaglio said. “I set a goal of getting my high school diploma on time and walking at graduation.”

Tartaglio was in the hospital for six weeks before being moved to a rehabilitation center. He said he drew strength from friends and family who never left his bedside.

“There was not one day where I was by myself,” Tartaglio said.

Rehabilitation was difficult. He had to relearn how to dress himself. He recalls laying on a mat on the floor and countless futile attempts to get up.

“I remember going back to my room really angry,” Tartaglio said.

In a week, Tartaglio was able to get up, which he calls his biggest accomplishment since surviving. He began to lift weights, with an eye on eventually walking.

He soon received specially designed prosthetics. Tartaglio was able to walk back and forth between parallel bars. He then attempted to walk with crutches while using his prosthetics. He recalls walking just 1,500 feet and being completely sapped of energy.

“It was like being on a pair of stilts,” Tartaglio said. “It was very scary.”

Back then, a 5 kilometer run and walk was being scheduled in Milford to help Tartaglio pay medical bills. Despite his struggles walking, Tartaglio vowed to walk a lap at the race, which he did. It took him 45 minutes to walk 0.25 mile, but he recalled being “ecstatic.”

“I was told I’d never walk again, and I had just done a quarter of a mile,” Tartaglio said.

His trainer, James Ronia, of Milford Rehabilitation Associates, challenged him to walk the entire race next year. Tartaglio also achieved his goal of walking to receive his diploma.

Tartaglio’s former principal at Foran High, Michael Cummings, said Tartaglio always impressed him long before his illness.

“He impressed me immediately for his maturity and toughness,” Cummings said.

Cummings said he’ll never forget the day Jeter came to Foran.

“What impressed me the most was the way the building rallied around him, and that he always maintained a maturity that would be the envy of anyone,” Cummings said. “He had a natural magnetism that drew staff to his cause. It was, with all sincerity, a privilege to know him and to draw strength from him.”

After graduation

Tartaglio said his story really begins after graduation. He enrolled at Fairfield University in the pre-med program. He competed in a 5k race on Long Island with his prosthetics, and was the first amputee without femurs and thighbones to finish.

He recalled it was summer 2006, and he called a bike shop asking about a hand cycle, and the owner challenged him to compete in the New York marathon.

“I said ‘all right,’” Tartaglio said.

With limited training time, he finished the marathon in 30th place with his hand cycle.

“The crowd on the side was cheering. There was no experience like it,” Tartaglio said.

In 2007, he competed in a New York City triathlon, then a 10k race in 2008 on his prosthetics. His senior year, Tartaglio wanted to complete a half Iron Man competition. He recalls that he was on his hand cycle going about 32 miles per hour when he hit a pothole and took a serious spill.

“The medic came over and (said) I could finish next year, and I said ‘Oh no, I didn’t come this far for nothing,’” said Tartaglio, who finished the race with bandages on his chest and shoulder.

Tartaglio has been training the past five months for the New York City marathon. He’s been working with new prosthetics and increasing his distance each time. Tartaglio has run up to nine hours at one time, while lifting weights for another hour. He is able to run a mile in about 25 minutes. He said he expects to be out there “all day” today, but he said he doesn’t allow himself to think about not finishing.

Housatonic students wished Tartaglio success Sunday. Wesley, who is president of the college’s student government, said he read about Tartaglio’s story, and after forming the school’s Community Action Network, felt there would be no better person to inspire students.

Kenny Gracia, 24, of Bridgeport, said Tartaglio’s message was important for students to hear. He said sometimes people face challenges, and Tartaglio has shown that “you can’t let that keep you down.”

“Everything is possible, don’t lose faith,” Gracia said of Tartaglio’s message. “John running in the New York City marathon shows a lot of heart.”

Kimberly Nania, 18, of Stratford, said Tartaglio’s talk was amazing in that he “doesn’t feel sorry for himself.”

“He acts normal,” Nania said. “He does things that a lot of us think are out of reach for us. He’s an inspiration. He doesn’t make me feel bad that I haven’t done anything (like he has).”

Tartaglio Sr. said five years ago, life was a “nightmare,” but he knows his son will “conquer and rule.”

“We love him to death,” Tartaglio Sr. said. “I’m just happy he’s here.”

Brian McCready can be reached or 203-789-5719.