It will be two years ago this August that Josh Basile’s life took an irreversible turn on the shores of Bethany Beach, Del. Until that day, Basile, a graduate of the Bullis School and a star tennis player on Skidmore College’s varsity tennis team, was an active and engaged young man who had not yet grappled with major adversity.
However, on Aug. 1, 2004, while bodysurfing at Bethany Beach, Basile was swept up and slammed down on the ocean floor. His fifth cervical vertebra was shattered and he was left paralyzed from the shoulders down. In the hospital, Basile was told that he would never get off the ventilator that was keeping him alive.
After two years of intense physical therapy and working to come to terms with his new situation, Basile has regained a wide range of mobility in his arms, and some mobility in his legs. He has emerged determined to make a difference in the lives of others with spinal cord injuries and to prevent further accidents of this kind.
LAST YEAR Basile launched a foundation Determined2Heal in an effort to achieve these goals.
The purpose of the organization is fourfold: to ease the transition families of newly injured spinal cord patients make from normal life to recovery; to support spinal cord related research and rehabilitative organizations; to promote beach safety so that future beach injuries may be prevented; and to maintain a Web site of information about spinal cord injury, research, and rehabilitation. In just one year, Basile has succeeded even beyond his own expectations.
Upon entering Basile’s home in River Falls, the current headquarters of Determined2Heal, the energy of the organization is palpable. Surrounded by leftover pizza and loud rock music, more than a dozen high school students, college students and college graduates work diligently, spurred on by the constant presence and vigor of Basile himself. He moves from group to group barking out orders and giving advice.
"It’s crazy around here. I’ve never had to be in charge of so many people at one time," said Basile.
Students from Bullis, St. Andrew’s, Whitman and Connecticut College work on one of several Determined2Heal teams— fundraising, neuroscience, documentary, travel, or the Web site.
"We have a bunch of different teams — we’re just rocking it out," Basile said.
Basile is urging his interns to completely redesign the Web site by providing spinal cord patients with the means to research their own injuries and ameliorative techniques based on their own degree of spinal cord injury.
Penn Scott, a rising Bullis School sophomore, heads the Web team. Visitors enter the severity of their spinal injury ranging from a level C-1 to C-8, and will be provided with appropriate information, rehabilitative exercises and activities that tailored to each visitor’s needs.
Basile is also hoping to post a range of activities that would enable, as he says, "a person in a wheel-chair to have a good time." He instructs his interns to call museums, sports arenas and aquariums in hopes of receiving free tickets for people with disabilities.
Huddled in the corner, the fundraising team organizes events such as a car wash at Bullis. The documentary team — St. Andrew’s students Gie Gie Hart, Kelly Tillotson and Hannah Davis — provides people with spinal cord injuries with rehabilitative techniques, by taking pictures of various exercises people with paraplegic paralysis engage in when performing their own physical therapy. These visual representations will be displayed on Determined2Heal’s website.
The foundation’s interns have a range of reasons for helping Determined2Heal reach its goals.
"I’ve been friends with Josh for years," said David Dimock, a Walt Whitman High School ‘05 graduate and rising sophomore at Connecticut College. "I’m going to be a neuroscience major [so] this is really up my alley." Basile also helped Dimock obtain a research internship at Johns Hopkins University’s Kennedy Kreiger Institute.
Kim Segal, a rising senior at Bullis, worked with Dimock on the neuroscience team.
"He came and talked to our school last year," Segal said. "I really wanted to do what I could to support it."
FOLLOWING THE LAUNCH of Determined2Heal, Basile has become a spokesperson for spinal cord injuries and beach safety awareness throughout the country. One of his upcoming speaking engagements is at Project Wipeout in Laguna Beach, Calif. in mid-July. Project Wipeout is a nonprofit organization created in 1979 after five young people with severe spinal cord injuries were admitted to Hoag’s Intensive Care Unit in Newport Beach in one summer. The foundation now works to save lives and prevent injuries at beaches throughout the country by developing and disseminating beach safety information.
Project Wipeout asked Basile to speak to 400 lifeguards during his trip to California in an attempt to educate them about spinal cord injuries and beach safety.
It is when talking about the issue of beach safety that Basile becomes truly passionate. His efforts to convince authorities in beach areas to post warning signs have fallen on deaf ears.
"It’s easier for them not to listen. They claim that these injuries are just freak accidents and that there is no proof that they are responsible because there are laws that prohibit hospitals from releasing the statistics that argue otherwise," Basile said. "These injuries can be prevented, but the bottom line is that they’re not being prevented, and that needs to change."
In addition to Basile’s work for Determined2Heal, his speaking engagements and his commitment to his physical therapy, Basile has secured an internship with U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) this summer. Cardin, a candidate for U.S. Senate, is a supporter of stem cell research. "That’s why I love the guy," said Basile.
For it is stem cell research itself that has shown the most promise in treating spinal cord injuries, Basile said. Basile has software that will enable him to type simply by speaking into a wireless earpiece, a device that will also function as a telephone at the press of a button.
ALTHOUGH BASILE no longer plays tennis at the varsity level, he refuses to surrender on the courts, just as he has refused to permit his injury to overcome him in life. After many months of physical therapy at Johns Hopkins University’s Kennedy Kreiger Institute, Josh has recently achieved a long sought-after goal: the ability to hit a tennis ball over the net. Sitting on the River Falls tennis courts in his wheelchair, grip assist gloves on his hands, his old tennis teacher Paul Bress treats him as he would treat any of his other players.
"Come on Josh," Bress calls out encouragingly.
But Basile needs no encouragement. The determination he needs comes from within. Amidst many onlookers, Basile acts as if he is the only one on the court. At this point it is just him and the ball.
"I got this one. Last one Joshua, last one," he says to himself as the ball approaches.
He moves his arm ever so slightly and hits it over the net. The court erupts in cheers and Bress yells out "Money!" – his characteristic expression.
"I think I’ll end on that note," Basile says.
— Alex Scofield also reported for this article.