Rowan player battles back from devastating crash
MIKE JENSEN, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
One afternoon last week, Rowan University basketball coach Joe Cassidy popped his head into a room on the fifth floor of the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital and found it empty.
"Is he in rehab?" Cassidy asked a nurse walking by.
"He may be at lunch," she said.
Three floors down, Robert Pittman was sitting at a cafeteria table across from his aunt. He had just finished a BLT and most of a bowl of mac and cheese. Rowan's coach complimented him on his attire, a Rowan basketball T-shirt. Barely more than two months after he had broken his neck, Pittman may be in a wheelchair, but he is able to chart his progress.
"You're walking with a harness?" Cassidy asked.
"With the nurses," Pittman said.
"Wow," his coach said.
Pittman wasn't walking at all when he first showed up in early October, after emergency surgery at Cooper University Hospital, after a car accident on Sept. 12 changed the focus of his workouts completely away from basketball. He was never paralyzed, Pittman said, never lost feeling, although his left leg remains weaker than his right.
"I just want to be able to walk again," Pittman said. "I have tunnel vision."
Pittman was a new sophomore at Rowan, a transfer basketball player from Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington. Rowan had just had its first basketball meeting the day before. That Friday afternoon, Pittman left an open gym where he had played with some of his new teammates, who barely knew the new guy.
"I won two games of one-on-one - I always think about that, the last time I played," Pittman said.
It was his birthday that weekend so Pittman, from Boothwyn, Delaware County, was driving back across the Commodore Barry Bridge to Chester, where he had lived into high school, headed there to get a haircut - "I had to get a fresh one."
According to a Harrison Township Police report, witnesses in the car ahead and behind Pittman's saw an unidentified maroon car heading east on Route 322 drift into the westbound lane. Trying to avoid it, Pittman swerved his car off the road and it drove up guide wires, flipping over.
"I remember everything," Pittman said.
The other car kept going, never spotted again. There is no update on the police report. Pittman said he can't worry about that. What still scares him, he said, is that his younger brother, a freshman at Rowan, could have been in the passenger's seat. Robert was trying to reach William Pittman to come with him, but his brother didn't answer his phone. "Thank God he didn't answer his phone," Robert Pittman said.
Therapists at Magee tell Lauree Booth-Pittman her son has the perfect personality to maneuver through this.
"He just smiles," she said. "He has a phenomenal personality."
When Pittman, a former basketball star at Chichester High, first got to Magee, he couldn't pick up a checker with his left hand. Last Wednesday, he was scrolling through his cellphone looking for a good photo to put in the newspaper. He passed on having one taken that day but said, "I'm lucky to be here. I have sensation and movement everywhere, and that's a blessing."
"From day one, he was not hesitating to try anything that we threw at him," said Jillian Kenderish, an occupational therapist at the facility on Race Street. "In the beginning, he was still on a ventilator. . . . Just [working on] being able to tolerate getting out of bed, getting in a chair, not getting dizzy. Now, he's doing so much better. It's a testament that he kind of pushed through in the beginning."
This already had been a tough, tough year in Pittman's house. According to his mother, who works as a health care software specialist, Robert's upbeat personality was inherited from her husband, who died of a heart attack in April.
Since he has two younger brothers, he still finds himself watching over them even from his hospital room. He was getting on his 11-year-old brother about homework. "I'm like, what am I doing? I'm in a wheelchair," Pittman said. "He listens, though."
Being an athlete makes a huge difference when it comes to his rehab, he said. "My body was prepared for the workload. Mentally, I'm prepared to get up and go work out. When I got here, I had lost a lot of weight. I was like 202 pounds" - on a 6-foot-4 frame. "I got down to 140. Now I'm up to like 178. But I'm self-motivated."
Whatever his next step, he talked about his driving force: He does not want to be dependent on family members.
"Even though my son is in this condition he's in right now," his mother said, "he's adopting a family for Christmas."
It was a family project, he said, work begun by his father. In between physical-therapy sessions, Robert looked for good candidates, putting out the word on Instagram. It goes with his mind-set of being lucky, that the outcome of his accident could have been worse. He sees others in worse shape at Magee.
"Four boys - their house went on fire," Robert Pittman said of the family they are adopting. "I don't think they had insurance."