Thursday October 4, 2012

GUILFORD -- For Bill "Hodgie" Hodgdon Jr., good days are measured in small movements -- a bent finger, or maybe a twitching toe.

More than 14 months after he was paralyzed in a fall, the former Brattleboro Union High School basketball standout is winning back control of his body one muscle at a time.

This week, Hodgdon made his first trip back to Vermont since the accident, taking a nine-hour train ride from his Virginia home. And he’s looking forward to a Saturday fundraiser at the Brattleboro American Legion, an event that may help him pay for a handicap-accessible van.

He’s quick to add, though, that the van and his other wish-list item -- a custom-fitted wheelchair -- are short-term accessories.

"I’m going to get up and walk," Hodgdon said. "I’m not going to need them forever."

Hodgdon, 50, is a 1980 graduate of BUHS, where he was a well-known varsity basketball player.

He’s also known for his outsized personality and keen sense of humor. Both qualities have served him well since July 23, 2011, when he was paralyzed from the neck down after a fall at a picnic in Washington, D.C., where he had been working for the transit system.

"It was just a freak accident," he said. "When this first happened, I couldn’t do anything. For the first six weeks, I was totally paralyzed."

Doctors didn’t offer much hope that his physical condition would change dramatically. But Hodgdon recalls that "I woke up one day, and I could move my index finger."

He was determined to regain as much movement as he could as soon as possible. And he had no interest in allowing family members back in Guilford to see him in his initial condition: For two months, he told no relatives except his brother about the injury.

"I didn’t want to see my father until I could shake his hand," Hodgdon said.

But Hodgdon also says his family has played a huge role in his slow-but-steady recovery at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, a spinal-rehabilitation center in Virginia and, now, at his home in Falls Church, Va. His wheelchair-bound condition requires daily assistance from his wife, Gail Livingston-Hodgdon.

He also credits his brother, Kenneth Hodgdon; his sister, Lorelei Hodgdon-Smead; his mother, Anna Hodgdon; and his father, Bill Hodgdon Sr.

An array of family members and friends greeted Hodgdon as he exited the train in Brattleboro just after 5 p.m. Monday.

"It blew my mind," he said.

A few days later at the family home in Guilford, the kitchen was bustling with other family: Two aunts, Rhea Rhodes of Brattleboro and Jane Hodgdon (who traveled from her Alaska home) were joined by Anthony Nubuasah, a physical therapist Hodgdon jovially refers to as his brother.

"You can never repay them," Hodgdon said. "We’ve always been a tight family, but now we’re really tight."

The family organized an initial fundraiser for Hodgdon’s medical bills in late January at the Brattleboro American Legion on Linden Street. Hodgdon was unable to attend but participated through an Internet-video connection.

"We watched the whole party," he said. "Everybody came up and said ‘hi’ to me."

This time, he’ll be able to attend in person. Family, friends and other supporters will gather from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the American Legion. There will be live music and food along with a raffle featuring a pages-long list of donations from local businesses.

Some of the bigger items include a flat-screen television and a large grill.

Smead said she was "amazed" by how many businesses participated in the first benefit for her brother.

"The response this time has been even more overwhelming," she said.

Hodgdon has no shortage of friends. And he’s been hearing from many of them, including his very first organized basketball coach in Guilford, Jim "Pickles" Bedard.

Generosity has been a common theme during Hodgdon’s trials. For example, there was a man who built him a "standing frame" to allow him to rise to his feet.

And two friends are planning to donate labor for a room renovation, a service that will be offered at a future raffle.

Family members also have set up a fund for Hodgdon. A check or money order can be made out to the Bill Hodgdon Fund, Members 1st Credit Union, 10 Browne Court, Brattleboro, VT 05304.

Hodgdon said the community outpouring is "like a dream."

But he’s also looking forward to a time when he won’t need such assistance. Hodgdon said he has a spinal cord bruise; as it heals and he undergoes therapy, he regains movement.

One day this week, he awoke and found he was able to move his left hand for the first time since his fall.

As his recovery progresses, Hodgdon regularly speaks to paralyzed patients at the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

"I tell them, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you what you can do and what you can’t do," he said.

Patience also is a big part of his message.

"Sitting in this chair," Hodgdon said, "you learn to be patient."