Sometimes wishes do come true. As part of a Wish of a Lifetime wish, Jim Penta and his family were able to fly in from Philadelphia to celebrate Jim’s 30-year anniversary as a Craig graduate.
Jim was paralyzed in 1986 at age 36, when a car hit him while he was riding a bicycle. He sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI), and his surgeon recommended that he go to Craig Hospital, as there were few rehabilitation options in his native Pennsylvania at the time.
As Jim progressed through his SCI rehabilitation at Craig, he was not aware that he had also sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the bike accident. It wasn’t until four years later when Jim returned to Craig, and had an MRI that it was discovered.
“I was relieved when they told me I had a head injury! A cloud was lifted and the Craig team worked with me on ways to compensate, including setting up daily calendars and reminders, returning to work skills, and volunteering. I eventually got a job with Circuit City where I worked until I turned 59,” he said.
During his Wish of a Lifetime visit to Craig with his family, many stories were shared about how Jim signed up for every outing Craig offered – from hot air balloon rides to whitewater rafting trips to amusement parks. “He still loves riding rollercoasters,” Cathy Penta, Jim’s wife, said.
Julie Wolff, Jim’s physical therapist while he was at Craig, could not join the celebration, but she taped a video message that was played at the event. “I am truly humbled to be a part of your story, Jim. I admired your hard work and spirit to rise above while you were at Craig. It has been wonderful to stay connected through the years,” she said.
Cathy credits Craig with helping Jim to be independent once again. “Craig was different because at the time of his injury, many of the rehab facilities only focused on helping the caregiver. Craig focused on empowering the patient to be as independent as possible. That and group therapy saved our marriage,” she said.
Jim said two things saved his life after his accident: music and Craig Hospital. He does not think he would be alive today, if it were not for both of these significant influences in his life.
Years earlier in college, Jim had been given a harmonica, leading him to discover that not only did he love music, he was actually quite good at it. He started playing the harmonica in a blues band with some musician friends and hasn’t ever put down that harmonica, citing the great joy and comfort that music adds to his life.
While at Craig, he found that music helped get him through a hard time. “My musician friends would come to rehab and we would have jam sessions,” Jim said. In fact, Jim was often found playing his harmonica in the stairwells at Craig while he was an inpatient. “The acoustics were great,” he said.
There has been one musician in particular, legendary blues harmonica player, Charlie Musselwhite, who had a huge impact on Jim’s life. Jim has followed Charlie’s music career since his college days in the early 70s, and is convinced that Charlie only gets better with time. About 10 or 15 years ago, Jim saw Charlie at a small venue and shook his hand. Charlie said something that Jim never forgot, and it impacted him greatly. Charlie quoted his good friend, John Lee Hooker, when he told Jim, “Blues is a healer,” a sentiment that Jim has found to be profoundly true on his own journey.
“Music connects me with the world. It’s one of life’s bonuses,” Jim said.
With a bit of good luck and providence, Wish of a Lifetime discovered that Charlie Musselwhite, who is still touring around the world after 50 years, happened to be doing a show in Denver while Jim and his family were visiting Craig. Wish of a Lifetime arranged to bring them to Charlie's concert.
“The opportunity to meet and learn from Jim’s lifelong music idol, and to be able to personally thank the doctors and team at Craig Hospital for being such a source of healing and hope, was truly a dream come true for Jim,” said Cathy.