In 2017, Don Daley, 68, bought a mobile wheelchair and a van with a ramp and lift, but he didn’t need them for long, despite hearing the words “you will never walk again” from doctors. An avid horseback rider, Don was on a riding expedition with friends in Douglas, Wyoming, when he was thrown from an ATV, sustaining a spinal cord injury. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital and then to Denver.
“I have to tell you, I always thought I would walk again,” Don says.
Giving up isn’t part of Don’s DNA. He was willing to do what it took to reach his physical potential— and get back on his beloved horse, Ezzy. He spent three months in SCI rehabilitation at Craig Hospital, working hard and finding motivation from the staff’s positive attitude.
“I’ve never seen so many positive people in one organization in my life. They never told me I couldn’t do something,” Don says.
Don recalls his PEAK Center therapist saying that he hoped he hadn’t bought a mobile wheelchair, because he wasn’t going to need it — he’d be walking. Don bought one anyway to ease the transition home, but he only used it for six weeks. He appreciated the personalized care he received at Craig, not just from the therapy teams but from his rehab tech and even the cashier in the cafeteria.
“The gal in the cafeteria knew I liked avocados. Every day, she’d have an avocado waiting for me,” he says.
A few programs at Craig really stood out for Don and his wife, Taunya. They described Family Housing as “a lifesaver” for providing an apartment for Taunya so she could move to Denver to be with Don. Through eight one-on-one sessions, Psychology helped the couple ready for life after injury. He also appreciated Occupational Therapy (OT) for helping him tackle flying home.
“Craig is so good about never hesitating to say, 'Let’s go accomplish that.' When my OT Steph learned I was flying home on a friend’s private plane, she suggested we practice going up and down steps. I was literally able to get into that airplane because of her,” Don says.
Don continued to work hard when he arrived home. He immediately started rehab, finding it too easy after being at Craig. He also hired a personal trainer to come to his house three days a week for two hours a day. They worked on walking. Don would go 50 feet, then sit in his wheelchair. Each week, he went a little farther. Now, he walks three-fourths of a mile without the help of a cane.
“I’m still working on getting my balance and some muscle memory back,” says Don. “My doctor here says I’ve hit a plateau. I’m getting past that plateau.”
Don returned to horseback riding just seven months after his stay at Craig. He and Ezzy are part of a group called the Sunday Riders in San Diego. He’s also a longtime member of Rancheros Visitadores or “Visiting Ranchers,” a social club in Santa Barbara that travels 60 miles over seven days each May, culminating in a parade through the town of Solvang, California. In 2019, the Rancheros Visitadores raised $1 million for breast cancer, and Don was right there with them.
Philanthropy is not new to Don, a fourth generation San Diegan. Throughout his life, he played an active role in the San Diego community and supported several organizations including Toys for Tots, The Polinsky Center, Maranatha Chapel, Horizon Prep, Pedal the Cause and the Mission Valley YMCA. In addition, Don provided pro bono asphalt restoration and development work for local public parks and schools via his commercial asphalt company. Today, he serves on the board of his son Don’s company, DIII Transport, named in honor of three generations of Don Daley’s. Recently, he gave to Craig’s Operation TBI Freedom, which supports veterans and active duty military personnel with traumatic brain injury.
“I give because I have been gifted a lot in my life,” says Don.
In the PEAK Center above The Lokomat, a robotic locomotor training system, is a picture of a past patient sitting on a horse. That photo provided extra motivation for Don. He told his physical therapist that he wanted to ride again, and he responded by saying, “You will ride again, if that’s what you want.”
“It’s great to be back in the saddle,” Don says. “The foundation I received at Craig is what gave me the ability to do what I am doing today, there’s no question about it.”